Rabies: Discussion, Causes, Treatment, Prevention

Invariably fatal, rabies is found across the entire US.

| June/July 1999

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    Distribution of major carriers of rabies across the US.

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On a frosty December evening in 1997, a Wyoming rancher went out to feed his horses and noticed that his three-year-old paint gelding was down in tile pasture, struggling to get up.

The rancher, who we will call Bill Williams could see no signs of a broken leg or any other injuries. He called his veterinarian, Dr. Larson, who instructed Williams to attempt to trailer the horse to the veterinary hospital. Williams finally got his horse up with the help of his family and a few neighbors.

Rabies is primarily a disease of wildlife. That is why we (and our sundry critters) who live as far from pavement as possible are at greatest risk. Raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes are the animals most affected in the United States.

The paint gelding was completely uncoordinated in his back legs and swayed unsteadily as he was loaded into the trailer. By the time the rancher arrived at the clinic, the horse was back down and needed to be coaxed up and out of the trailer.

Dr. Larson's examination showed no evidence of trauma, except where the gelding had banged its head on the trailer when it went down. In his case report, Larson described profound neurological signs, most likely involving the spinal cord. The horse would kick out and jerk reflexively when touched on a back leg. Unable to stand, it would stagger and finally go down in its stall.

Results of X rays of the horse's neck area proved normal. The animal was sedated and treated with intravenous fluids and anti-inflammatories. Dr. Larson told Williams that the horse probably had either injured, or had an infection in, its spinal cord or else had ingested a toxin causing neurological damage. In any event, response to treatment within 24 hours would likely indicate the severity of the problem and the possibility of recovery.

Rabies is an invariably fatal disease of the nervous system. Transmitted by saliva, it is passed from one victim to the next through either a bite wound or contact with an open cut. The rabies virus slowly but inexorably travels up nerve cells to the salivary glands and the brain, where it wreaks its deadly havoc. It can take days or months for the virus to reach the brain, depending on the size of the animal and location of the bite.

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