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Ask the Vet: Protecting your pets from rabies

By Dr. Amanda Bruce

 Because of the amount of contact we have with our pets, protecting them from rabies is critically important for us as well as for them.

While most rabies cases occur in wildlife, particularly skunks and bats in our region, about 10 percent of cases take place in domestic animals. Dogs, cats and cows are the most commonly affected domestic species. Animal health experts have developed specific steps to take if your dog or cat is bitten by a wild animal or a domestic animal with an unknown rabies vaccination status. If this happens to your pet, get your animal to the veterinarian quickly so you can start this process.

But there are steps owners can take to decrease the risk of rabies exposure in the first place.

First and foremost, all dogs and cats should be kept up to date on their rabies vaccinations. With the growing number of strictly indoor cats, I see an alarming number of owners who are reluctant to vaccinate. Indoor-only cats are still at risk of rabies because of potential exposure to bats.

Bats are the No. 1 species that exposes humans to rabies. All of the most recent cases of human exposure to rabies in Wisconsin were due to bats. Rabid bats that enter homes can leave puncture wounds from bites that are nearly undetectable. I’ve been taught to encourage owners to submit any bat found in a home or cabin for rabies testing.

Controlling populations of bats is neither desirable nor completely possible. But taking steps to seal entrances to your home that a bat might use is a logical step to take to decrease the risk of rabies transmission.

Dogs are more likely to come into contact with wild animals such as skunks, fox or raccoons. With dogs, it becomes important to avoid encounters with wild animals as much as possible. That can be difficult. But keeping garbage covered and blocking access to areas under decks will help keep wildlife out of your yard.

The signs associated with a rabies-infected bite depend on the species affected and the strain of the virus. Cats typically become aggressive. Dogs can show a range of signs varying from aggression to difficulty swallowing to paralysis.

I strongly encourage rabies testing for any wild animal known to have bitten a domestic animal. When the wild animal cannot be obtained for testing, contact your vet to determine the term of an observation period for your pet.

Even if dogs or cats are up to date on the rabies vaccine, they should get a booster vaccine if bitten by a wild animal or another animal with an unknown rabies history.

Over the last century, the number of human cases of rabies has substantially decreased. This is the result of strong surveillance measures and laws requiring rabies vaccination of many domestic animal species. If you have questions about potential rabies exposure in your pet, your veterinarian is a great resource.

Dr. Amanda Bruce of Superior is owner of PetCare of Duluth, 2701 W. Superior St., Suite 102, Duluth. You can reach her or ask questions for future columns at or 218-461-4400. For more information about this subject go to