Knowing how to respond to the risk of rabies

Farm Forum

Fortunately, zoonotic diseases – illnesses that can be passed from animals to people – are fairly uncommon in our part of the world. One of them, however, gets our frequent attention: rabies.

Rabies is the one disease you can catch from animals that’s consistently fatal if untreated. Here in South Dakota we tend to identify more animal rabies cases than our surrounding states. In 2015 we identified 29 rabid animals, a 40% increase from 2014. Most of them were wildlife (predominantly skunks). Of domestic animals, cattle actually were more frequently identified than dogs or cats. Many factors influence the number of rabies cases in a given year, including wildlife populations and habitat, vaccination rates of domestic animals, and the frequency of animal-wildlife-people encounters.

The most important message concerning rabies is a simple one: vaccinate your animals. There is no good excuse for not having your dogs, cats, or horses up to date on rabies vaccine. While it’s usually not practical to vaccinate large herds of cattle or flocks of sheep, show animals and those with frequent contact with the public should be vaccinated as a measure of safety.

I’ve taken dozens of rabies-related questions from anxious clients and citizens over my years in practice and at SDSU. They usually begin with the words, “What should I do…?” The answers to these questions usually have some degree of complexity to them – which is why you should always call your vet first with questions about rabies. They’re in the best position to help sort out the details and put you in touch with the right experts if that’s what’s needed. But here’s a couple common scenarios that illustrate some important points about this disease.

Situation: your pet gets into a fight with a skunk or some other wild animal. Two major considerations arise. First, is your pet currently vaccinated for rabies? If your animal was vaccinated, this scenario is relatively easy to take. The pet should get a booster shot of rabies vaccine and observed under your control for 45 days. This is a measure of safety in the event your animal’s rabies vaccination did not work (but rabies vaccine failure is so rare as to be almost considered a non-event).

If your pet is not vaccinated for rabies, the second question now becomes important: did the attacking wild animal have rabies? In the case of a skunk attack, especially if it’s unprovoked or during broad daylight, chances are the skunk is indeed rabid. The wild animal should be killed (sparing the brain) and tested for rabies. If the test is negative, you can breathe a sigh of relief, deal with your animal’s injuries, and vaccinate the pet for rabies for the next time his happens. If the test is positive – or if the wild animal can’t be found – your unvaccinated pet needs to be euthanized. There is too much risk of your animal developing rabies and possibly serving as a source of the disease for people or other animals.

Another situation: you’re out for an evening stroll on your gravel road and your neighbor’s dog leaps out of the ditch and nips you on the back of your calf, enough to draw some blood. The question here is whether that dog could possibly have rabies. Here, the situation is handled the same whether the dog has been vaccinated or not (again, due to the infinitesimal chance a vaccinated dog could catch rabies). The dog needs to be confined by the owner for 10 days. If the dog has remained healthy for the 10-day period, there’s no way it could have had rabies when it bit you. Any domestic animal capable of transmitting rabies to you will either show signs of the disease (behavior abnormalities or other brain-related signs) or will be showing those signs very soon, with death imminent.

The best protection against all of the effects of this disease is a simple one: vaccinate your pets. Contact your vet with any rabies-related questions you may have and make sure the animals you care for are current on their shots as spring turns into summer.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.