Thinking you don’t want to vaccinate your pets for anything out of concern for your pet’s health? You have your pet’s absolute best interest in mind. We are right there with you in wanting to ensure your pet is as healthy as possible for their entire life. Vaccinations warrant serious consideration. And you’ve read a lot of the scary posts about vaccines on social media. So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about the big question: Does your dog or cat need the rabies vaccine?

At the Veterinary Hospital of Davidson, we are extremely cautious about administering vaccines to your pet. There are a lot of vaccines available in the veterinary world. Does your pet need all of them? Probably not. We want to be sure if we give your pet a vaccine that your pet needs the protection that the vaccine offers. We take into account the risk factors in your pet’s lifestyle and tailor a vaccine plan just right for your pet. Sure, we can do vaccine titers and in many situations recommend these as your pet ages, but we can’t titer everything (more to come on this below). We can’t titer for rabies (but you say there is a titer available…more on that below).

Let’s talk the truth about rabies. The rabies vaccination is required by North Carolina law for your dog, cat, and ferret. Perhaps you feel this law doesn’t apply to you? Your cat never goes out and your dog only stays on the leash when outside in your neighborhood. Let’s talk statistics. In Mecklenburg county already in 2019, there have been 11 confirmed cases of rabies (see the full article from CMPD here): 2 skunks, 7 raccoons, 1 bat, and 1 cat. This makes the risk of rabies serious business for all of us. In my own house, I had a bat that got inside. I only discovered it because my cats were chasing it all over the house. Had they not been up-to-date on rabies, then they would have been at risk. I couldn’t have said 100% none got bitten since I wasn’t there the whole time they were chasing the poor animal. I also don’t know if the bat had rabies since it escaped back outside before it could be caught and tested. What if my cats weren’t current on their vaccine? What if one got exposed via a bat bite? Then my entire household might have been exposed to rabies. Sure, as a veterinarian I’m vaccinated but not the kids. We might not know about rabies exposure until someone fell ill and by then it’s too late.

Rabies is universally fatal to dogs, cats, and people, not to mention wildlife who become infected. Let me be really clear: if a person, dog, or cat is exposed and contracts the rabies viral infection it will die. There is no cure. Zero. If your pet is not vaccinated and bites a person (such as one of our staff in the office) or plays with rabies positive wild animal, you will likely be facing either euthanasia and submission of your pet for rabies testing immediately or six months of quarantine at a CMPD authorized facility where your pet cannot be touched during the quarantine time. There is no way to screen an animal for an active rabies infection prior to death (brain tissue must be examined). The person who was bitten will need to receive 5 to 9 vaccines for post-exposure treatment even in situations where we may feel the dog who bit the person may not have rabies. Medical professionals cannot run the risk that your dog doesn’t have rabies. Do you want to receive 5 vaccines? (hoping you say no). Here you can read more about post-exposure rabies treatment: click here.

Let’s Talk Titers

Vaccine titers can be wonderful to assess your pet’s need for a booster vaccination of DA2P (Canine Distemper, Adenovirus, and Parvovirus) in dogs and FVRCP (Feline Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia) in cats. We use these regularly to determine if your pet is protected or in need of vaccination. These are core vaccines, which means your pet needs protection against them due to the wide-spread prevalence and severity of the diseases that they prevent. After your pet completes her initial series of these vaccines and the boosters one year later, annual titers can be used thereafter to let us know when we need to booster the vaccine. Studies show many cats and dogs retain what we consider “protective” immunity to these diseases for many years. The immunity does wane, however, and will do so within 2 to 5 years in most cases. Titers won’t work for rabies.

Hold the boat, you say. I read about rabies titers for pets online. Yes, a rabies titer can be performed on your dog or cat, but the use of titers in lieu of rabies vaccination is not straight forward. The titer test is only performed as a requirement for international travel to certain countries. The titer merely tells us a pet received a rabies vaccination and formed some level of immunity against it, but no one knows in pets what titer level is considered protective. To determine what’s “protective” we would need to do a research study to expose pets at varying titer levels to rabies virus and those who contracted rabies and died would be considered not protected….yeah, that sounds like a horrible study and would be why it hasn’t been done.

The major complicating factor in the use of rabies titers is there is no agreed-upon standard titer value that is considered protective. We cannot mess around with this disease. If your pet contracts rabies and you contract it from your pet, you and your pet will die. Because this is a disease that has such great significance with regards to public health (i.e., guaranteed death) states across the country made the blanket judgment call to require vaccination for rabies for dogs, cats, and ferrets. The most efficient way to prevent human rabies deaths is to vaccinate pets (and stay away from wild animals who exhibit unusual, often neurological behavior out of character). The rabies laws do not allow the use of titers in place of vaccination.

Bottom Line: The easiest and safest bet is to keep your pet up to date on her rabies vaccine. For cats, we use the absolute safest vaccine on the market which is made by Merial. It relies on adjuvant-free Purevax technology (read more about Purevax here). This means this vaccine unlike traditional adjuvanted “3-year” vaccines induces the least amount of local inflammation and is not associated with potential tumor formation at the vaccine site. We have both a 1-year and 3-year Purevax option for cats who are over a year of age.

For dogs, we have chosen the safest vaccine on the market, Merial IMRAB which is thimerosal-free. After your dog’s first year this only needs to be given every 3 years. Our rabies vaccines are a killed vaccine which means there is no risk to contract the virus and it induces a lot less inflammation than our traditional modified-live distemper/parvo vaccines.

Dr. Zoe Forward