Part Three: Change That Law!
It’s way past time to update the rabies laws we live with.
In their present form, animals, specifically dogs, cats, and ferrets, are legally required to receive way more rabies vaccines in their lives than what is necessary to establish immunity.
Horses are often grossly over vaccinated for this disease as well, though it’s not a legal requirement for them.
The risk to health that comes from following these rabies laws is clear.
(If you haven’t seen the outpouring of troublesome stories that Part One of this series elicited, take a moment to read the post and its record breaking number of comments. We’ll wait for you. Seriously, we think it’s that important, we’ll trim some nails or something till you have read it.… You back? Cool, read on.)
The Need for a Rabies Law
Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning humans get it from animals. If a person contracts rabies, it’s usually fatal, with few exceptions.
We don’t have a law about distemper, or parvo, or feline respiratory viruses because they only affect the animal who gets the disease. While they could cause death, potentially, the infected animal won’t cause human death, so there’s no law about vaccinating for any of these other diseases.
(That’s not to say vaccinating against the other common diseases is safe. Oh Lord, no.)
Death from rabies is quite gruesome, as well. One of its main symptoms gave it its other name: hydrophobia. The fear of water. Most rabies infected humans have a sudden strangling spasm of the throat when they try to drink, due to the virus’s influence on their nervous system.
That choking after drinking is so intense, the fear of water tends to go global: fear of drinking, fear of seeing water, even fear of the sound of running water.
By the way, we see this in dogs who do not have rabies, but who have had multiple rabies vaccinations. Or even those whose ancestors have had multiple rabies vaccinations.
These are the dogs who go a bit bonkers with a running hose, biting it, barking at it, seemingly furious. Or the dogs who chase flashlight beams, bikes, or skateboards, like they were a menace to society. All these things move, you see? Close enough to running water that the rabies influenced animal will be perturbed by these things.
The Need for a Thoughtful, Reality-based Rabies Law
Rabies vaccination laws were made with good intent. Keeping domestic pets from contracting rabies significantly drops the incidence of human rabies. And the rabies vaccination confers immunity to dogs and cats, no doubt.
One only need look at where rabies in humans is still a significant problem in the world to verify this: it’s Africa and Asia, where there are no rabies vaccine laws or elimination of stray dogs. It’s estimated 60,000 deaths a year are due to rabies in these areas, the victims mostly young children.
In contrast, CDC stats indicate 49 human cases of rabies in the U.S. from 1995-2011.
Where the rub comes is that rabies laws, in their present form, have no basis in scientific reality. Immunologists have known for decades now that duration of immunity from most viral vaccines, rabies included, in very long. Likely lifelong, in their words.
So, to be a law abiding citizen in the United States, that means vaccinating your pets every three years, or worse, if your county or municipality has really missed the memo, annually.
That’s a whole lot of unnecessary vaccinations that:
1. Don’t add anything to the existing immunity from the early vaccinations, and
2. Have a significant potential to cause harm, even death. (You did read about Tigger in Part One, right?)
So, let’s paint a better scenario. What would a better rabies law look like?
Big Picture Rabies Law: What are We After?
The goal is a dog or cat who’s immune. Immunity is not like a gas tank that runs out after so much time. Although, it can be measured.
So, let’s put some language in our new law that makes provision for measurement, something the immunologists know well how to do.
Dr. Ronald Schultz, chief investigator of the Rabies Challenge Fund is reputed to be quite pleased with the data the study is generating in dogs vaccinated against rabies once.
The RCF dogs are being titer tested to see how long the antibodies persist, but by now you likely know that titers are not a complete measure of immunity, right?
Along with titers, the dogs on the study have been further tested to measure their cell mediated immunity (CMI). This is a far more reliable test. It tells a much deeper story of persistent immunity, immunity that persists even when antibody titers have fallen to zero.
Here’s the exciting news.
The dogs on the study, even though after three years, had low “non-protective” titers, or no titers at all, STILL HAD protective immunity as measured by CMI testing!
So, to reiterate what’s being learned in the Rabies Challenge Fund right now:
- Dogs were vaccinated once against rabies, and immunity was measured in two ways:
- Antibody titers that persisted for three years, then mostly fell off.
- Cell mediated immunity measurements that indicated immunity was still present at five years, even when titers were gone.
- The dogs will finally be challenged with live rabies virus to fully prove their measured immunity was truly protective. That’s the gold standard that every vaccine currently licensed has to achieve.
[Wait. Why not measure every dog and cat with the CMI testing? It’s not practical and is very expensive. We are therefore left with titers, which don’t measure full immunity. But you knew that, right?]
The results of these RCF studies will be published and can be used to both label vaccines with longer intervals of repetition, and more importantly, form the basis for new rabies laws.
And, The Envelope, Please. Our New Rabies Vaccination Law
Therefore let it be proclaimed in whatever legalese is deemed necessary, that:
1. Pets vaccinated for rabies will be considered immune to rabies and exempt from further vaccination when they show a positive titer test. Titers are optional in lieu of vaccination, and will be recognized by all regulatory bodies.
2. Those who’d rather vaccinate instead of titer test can, and the minimum requirement across the land will be three years. (Listen up, Podunk County officials!)
3. A period of ___ years will be waived from further rabies vaccination once the titer test has fallen below “protective levels.”
This latter provision will be based on the good, solid data coming from the Rabies Challenge Fund, showing cellular memory lasts X years beyond the falling off a titer (we’re still awaiting numbers, hence the blank and the “X” until we know).
This Is Only a Start. Repeat: Only a Start
The odds are, say the veterinary immunologists, that lifetime immunity results from viral vaccination in most cases. Knowing this and the harm that vaccination can cause from even “just a rabies vaccine,” you have to decide how to interact with a law like this.
I’ve provided some ideas to help you decide now and in the future how you’ll act.
But, if we’re going to have a rabies law, and that seems inevitable, let’s at least graduate to one uniform law that all states, counties and municipalities can use, and let’s write that law based on sound scientific knowledge.
Our animals deserve that.
Anything you’d like to add? Tell us in the comments.
p.s. Coming soon: an interview with a client who took her dog to repeated shows (to titles!) and never had a single rabies vaccination! Have you subscribed yet? You’ll get first notice of this coming out when you do.