An Out-Of-Date Rabies Vaccine Could Be A Death Sentence

Mecklenburg County had the highest incidence of confirmed rabies cases in North Carolina five out of the past six years. These cases involved dogs and cats, as well as animals that are living in our backyards, such as raccoons, bats, and skunks. The only absolute way to prevent your pet and family from becoming infected with rabies is to keep your pets vaccinated. An unvaccinated pet that comes into contact with a rabid animal can ultimately expose loved ones to the fatal virus.

sad-pupRabies is a viral, zoonotic disease. This means an infected mammal can spread rabies to another animal or person, just through contact with its infected saliva. Rabies has no cure and is 100% fatal. Rabid animals aren’t necessarily aggressive nor do they always froth at the mouth. Infected animals often display a number of different neurologic signs including a simple lack of fear. That “friendly” raccoon in your yard during the middle of the day may actually be displaying signs of rabies! Even indoor pets, or pets that go out occasionally, should be vaccinated. Frequently, very small rodents like bats are present in the home and can bite pets without detection.

Dogs commonly have altercations with raccoons and other potentially infected animals while they are outside, which puts them at immediate risk of rabies exposure. Should this happen to your pet, it is very important that you leave both animals outside. Do not touch your dog, because infected saliva may be on its fur. Call your vet immediately for directions regarding your pet and contact animal control to trap the raccoon or other potentially rabid animal. Pets should get re-vaccinated within five days of any incident with a wild animal.

North Carolina law states that the first rabies vaccine must be given to a pet by 16 weeks of age. The initial vaccine is valid for one year. Subsequent vaccines are valid for a three-year period. Each time a pet receives a rabies booster, a rabies certificate and tag are issued. A certificate, with the pet’s accurate description, is the only legal proof of vaccination. Boosters for a rabies vaccine should be given on or before the due date listed on the rabies certificate.

A pet that is overdue for a rabies vaccine, even for one day, is not considered protected, or vaccinated, under the law. This could result in grave consequences for your pet. If an unvaccinated pet comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal, a legally mandated six-month quarantine at a veterinary hospital is imposed, at the pet owner’s expense. This could cost thousands of dollars! In the worst cases, the state health department can order immediate euthanasia and testing of your pet for rabies, especially if human exposure is suspected. If a pet that has never received a rabies vaccination develops unexplained neurologic signs, there is a legal requirement for euthanasia and testing of the pet for the virus, even if there is no direct evidence of exposure to a wild animal. If a vaccinated pet bites a human, there is a mandatory 10-day quarantine at an approved facility at the owner’s expense to observe the pet for signs of infection.

The rabies vaccine has helped nearly eradicate the incidence of the disease in our pet population. It’s inexpensive, highly effective and a pet owner’s legal responsibility. For more information on rabies, visit

Originally published March 2015 In The Lake Norman Citizen

Dr. Gretchen Burke is a veterinarian with LakeCross Veterinary in Huntersville. The vets in the big yellow house have been treating pets like family for 20 years. For more information, call 704-948-6300.