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Imported Animals and How to Minimize the Rabies Risks

This article was written in response to the June 10th, 2021 report of the 34 pets (33 dogs and one cat) entering the United States through O’Hare Airport from Azerbaijan, as one of the dogs in the group tested positive for rabies in Pennsylvania. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a multi-state public health investigation after at least 12 people were exposed to the rabid dog imported from overseas. The location of the other imported pets has not been released. The United States eliminated rabies in domestic dogs back in 2007 thanks to widespread vaccination, and other preventive measures. However, the virus is still present in wildlife such as foxes, raccoons, bats, and skunks. Most states have public tracking of positive rabies cases in these species, due to the serious risk to human health.

As veterinarians, we're not one to cause alarm where there is no serious threat, but our job is to keep you and your pets safe. That's why we decided to share information on rabies, whether this threat could be applicable to you, and what you should do if you recently adopted a pet from overseas.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection that attacks the nervous system of most mammals, including humans. Once infected, the virus causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. The transmission of rabies is almost always by the bite of an infected animal. It can also be transmitted if infected saliva meets an open wound. Rabies has an incubation period that can be difficult to track. It can range anywhere from 21 to 80 days. However, it can also be as short as just a few hours before signs start to show.

Some common signs of rabies are as follows:

  • Behavioral changes such as nervousness
  • Extreme excitability
  • Loss of appetite

Infected hosts can also become more aggressive, and this can lead to the classic “Mad Dog Syndrome,” including excessive teeth showing and extreme irritability.

Another kind can be "dumb rabies," or the paralytic form, which is when the infected host loses control of the jaw and throat muscles, causing excess salivation and the inability to swallow. This is when the "foaming at the mouth" occurs that is most widely associated with rabies. Dr. Emily Pieracci of the CDC recently spoke to NPR on this topic. She stated that rabies is still one of the most deadly diseases globally. Roughly 59,000 people die from this disease every year - that is about one death every nine minutes. Unfortunately, rabies is nearly always fatal when the infected host starts showing symptoms.

The CDC Ban on Overseas Pets

As stated above, the United States eliminated rabies in domestic dogs back in 2007. With the high demands of people who want to rescue dogs, many shelters and groups started to import animals from overseas, such as Azerbaijan, where rabies is not eliminated. In fact, Azerbaijan has a strain of rabies that is not found in the United States. Dr. Douglas Kratt, President of the American Veterinary Medical Association said, "If a new strain of rabies were to be introduced into the United States, it's just a matter of where it will spread and how fast it will spread." That is why, on June 14th, the CDC placed a ban on 113 countries from allowing animals to be imported to the United States. This ban is going into effect on July 14th, 2021, and will be in place for a year, when it will be reevaluated.

What Should You Do?

If you've recently adopted a dog or cat within the past month, it is best for you to contact the place of adoption and ask if your pet was imported from overseas. If you are looking to adopt a pet, do thorough research on the organization and where they source their adoptable animals. It is always vital to have your recently adopted pet examined by your trusted veterinarian and to keep all your dogs and cats current on their rabies vaccination. Almost all states require rabies vaccines for pets.

Again, it is not our intention to fearmonger but, rather, to make sure you have the information you need to keep your furry and human family members safe.

Do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions about your newly adopted pet or about rabies in general.