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Are rabies vaccines really necessary?

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

Before you decide if getting your pet's annual rabies shot is worth it, read this

We get it — vet bills for your pet's annual vaccinations can be costly. But before you decide to opt out of a rabies shot, there are a few statistics you should consider.

In all the years you've been taking your pet to the vet to get a rabies vaccination, you've likely never actually known personally any pet that has been infected with the deadly virus.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Each year more than 55,000 people worldwide die of rabies. So, while you're lucky to have been sheltered from the deadly disease thus far, the statistics prove that being exposed to it is, in fact, a very real possibility.

What is rabies?

One of the oldest recognized infectious diseases and perhaps the first recognized zoonotic disease, rabies is caused by a bullet-shaped virus containing a single stranded, negative sense RNA molecule.

Its origins date back to Babylon in the 23rd century BC, during which time historical references to the disease relating to dog bites were first recorded.

What animals are susceptible to rabies?

The term "reservoir species" in relation to rabies refers to wildlife species that are capable of transmitting the rabies virus to different species. Although rabies is often associated with bats — and they are one of the primary "reservoirs" worldwide — over 4,000 mammalian species are actually susceptible to rabies.

In North America, as is the case in most developed countries, the majority of rabies cases occur in wildlife. In developing countries, dogs are still the primary rabies reservoirs. Still, North American cases reported to the CDC run the spectrum from skunks and foxes to white-tailed deer and river otters.

But, cautions Dr. Bernadine Cruz with the American Veterinary Medical Association, the prevalence of infection in cats is on the rise. "Rabies. Just the word conjures visions of Cujo, the Stephen King rabid St. Bernard, and death and denial. Though the prevalence of rabies in the United States in domestic pets has decreased dramatically over the past several decades, in part due to an aggressive vaccination program for dogs, the number of reported cases in cats has increased," explained the veterinarian.

"Cats are not more susceptible to rabies but historically have not been required to be vaccinated for this preventable disease," said Cruz. "Even indoor cats have contracted this potentially fatal virus."

What's the worse that could happen?

Really, you might think, what's the worse that could happen if I don't vaccinate my pet? In the grand scheme of things, pretty inconsequential, right?

Well, not exactly.

Aside from the obvious danger of your pet becoming infected and you or a loved one being bitten, a decline in rabies vaccinations could lead to a dramatic increase in cases in the United States.

More than 80 percent of human rabies cases annually occur in Asia, and China in particular has seen a severe spike in the last decade. Experts blame this in large part on the widespread lack of proper vaccination.

How effective is the rabies vaccine?

The good news is that you can help stop the spread of disease by vaccinating your cat or dog. "Your local veterinarian plays a key role in controlling rabies," explained Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why? Because the rabies vaccine, which your vet will administer to your pet upon request, is 100 percent effective. Since nearly 40 percent of people bitten by rabid animals are under 15 years of age, this is particularly crucial in preventing the spread of the disease to young children.

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