Exotic Pets Do Not Spread Rabies
Rabies: General Information
Perhaps the most warnings and precautionary measures regarding contact with wildlife exist due to the prevalence of the rabies virus among some wild mammals, which is a problem in all 49 mainland states plus Alaska.
The potentially fatal viral infection is a commonly feared zoonotic disease that is transmitted via wild animal transmission (mostly carnivores) in the United States. Around 8% of rabies cases occur in domesticated animals.
Not all animals, including humans that are exposed to the virus, will indefinitely contract rabies after exposure to a wild animal.
Whether or not the exposure results in no response, asymptomatic infection, or the rabies disease varies depending on the strain of the virus, the susceptibility of the species toward the virus, and other factors such as the genetic variants of the potential host species.
The 'shedding period', which is the time an infected animal can pass the virus to another, also varies by species.
The virus is typically transmitted when the saliva of an infected animal contacts an open wound or mucous membrane, as the virus can only survive on this medium and dies upon exposure to air. The most common cause of rabies infection is usually from the animal’s bite, but scratches can possibly transmit the virus if contaminated saliva enters this wound, however this is very rare.
After the host is infected the virus, after spreading via the fluid transport of the nerves, eventually attacks the central nervous system and reaches the brain. Symptoms at this stage may include the well-known increased aggressiveness (such as in dogs), but may also lead to enhanced passivity of the animal, lethargy, depression, and other mood alterations in response to this pain. Some situations of increased excitation in affected red foxes has led them to actually attack humans, which is not at all normal behavior for that species.
- Banning Exotic Pets Is Senseless
"Exotic" animal bans are sweeping the nation with no signs of ceasing. The practice of privately owning exotic animals has come under fire more than ever before thanks to the Terry Thompson Ohio massacre. How do people justify exotic pet bans?
The disease, if left untreated, is fatal when symptoms show up, usually occurring within a few days after this time in humans. Any warm-blooded animal is capable of carrying the rabies virus to varying degrees, however the Center for Disease Control states that the vast majority of reported cases occur in wild (non-captive) animals such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.
Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares have zero, or extremely insignificant rates of rabies transmission to humans in the United States. However dogs and cats (the 'untouchable 2', as they are highly resistant to bans and overall criticism as pets) are frequently reported as confirmed cases and have comprised the majority of cases in the U.S. from a pet species.
However, the number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States has declined from more than 100 cases annually in the early 1900’s to one or two cases per year since the 1990s.
Rabies is frequently listed (along with other diseases) to be a potential hazard as a result of the exotic pet trade and ownership of exotic animals. As each exotic animal species should be assessed individually, so should this so-called threat to public safety.
Warning for exotic pet owners
- If your exotic mammal bites a member of the public, it is very possible that officials can order your pet to be euthanized for rabies testing.
- Some states have bans on administering the rabies vaccines to certain exotic pets (where they are legal to be owned), such as raccoons and foxes.
Rabies vaccines in exotic pets
Why do exotic animals get a bad rap with this disease? While dogs can be common carriers of the virus, (and are one of the most common sources of transmission of the disease to humans in undeveloped countries such as Asia and Africa) an important difference of dogs, cats, ferrets and most farm animals that separates them from ‘exotic’ pets is that these non-domesticated animals do not have an approved rabies vaccine.
This simply means that the vaccine has not been tested on these species. It is highly likely that they never will be, because no one cares enough.
Exotic animals may receive a rabies vaccination (my spotted genet has received a killed-virus vaccine approved for ferrets) and they probably do work, but they are not approved as there is insufficient information on how long each species can carry the virus before exhibiting symptoms, eliminating possible quarantine procedures to indefinitely rule out an infection.
Due to this, if an exotic pet bites a stranger, the animal is often ordered to be destroyed for rabies testing, which is an unfortunate but sometimes necessary protocol (some owners are given the option of quarantining their pet for an extended amount of time if it is very unlikely the animal was exposed to rabies, as they often are).
I have heard of exceptions occurring when animals are obviously not likely to have the virus due to lifestyle arrangements, but this is not something to be counted on. This involves quarantining the animal for 30 days, as rabies is a significantly fatal disease.
Dog owners accept the risk that their pets may be euthanized if they bite someone severely and are deemed ‘dangerous’, behavior-wise. The rabies protocol is just one reason why owners of exotic mammals should be diligent in making sure such escapes don’t occur (insuring escapes don't happen is also very important, as it is more likely to lead to the permanent loss of the animal, anyway).
- CDC - Rabies Surveillance in the U.S.: Human Rabies - Rabies
Links; Table and Resources on Human Rabies Cases in the US (Multiple Years)
Should people be concerned about contracting the rabies virus from exotic pets?
To provide some perspective on this alleged health threat, for over a year I have been signed up to receive internet hits that contain the keywords “exotic pet” and “wild animal pet” via Google alerts. I also visit Rexano’s Facebook page daily where exotic animal related news is posted frequently.
I get many reports of rabies and incidences of rabid animals attacking. Not one had been due to an exotic pet. Nor can I even find a single incident of an exotic pet (aside from ferrets, which are technically domesticated) being found with the virus in the U.S. The few exotic animal escapes that lead to an uninvolved person getting bitten by the animal usual lead to that pet getting euthanized, and of course after testing, they are never determined to be rabid.
Ferrets are sometimes considered to be an exotic pet even though they are domesticated. Ferrets also have an approved rabies vaccine. So far there have been 4 cases of rabies that have been found in ferrets.
"Applying scientific data that is currently available, humans are more likely to contract rabies through organ transplant, inhalation, blood transfusion, ingestion, or from a dog, cat, other companion animal, or livestock bite than from a ferret bite"
The pet species most often found with rabies are domesticated cats
My Google alerts however send me reports of feral cats being found with the virus about once a week. These numbers are actually increasing. Dogs, and wild animals (not pets) are also frequently found with it. As of the writing of this passage, a cow and a horse were found to have contracted the virus. I have never heard of exotic pets such as fennec foxes, kinkajous, ect. being found with the rabies virus in the United States. Since cats are the pet species most likely to transmit rabies to a human, and even cats haven't done so since 1975, how dangerous can the threat from exotic pets be? Ally Cat Allies (also known as the national-eliminate native wildlife and birds-association), states that rabies is not a health threat to the population. If cats can be protected from this stigma, so can exotic pets.
Exotic pet mammals are not irresponsibly allowed to roam outdoors like pet, stray, and feral cats, therefore it is highly-unlikely that they will encounter a rabid wild animal, unlike feral cats.
It is interesting that so many 'animal lovers' support practices such as ‘TNR’ (trap-neuter-release) of invasive feral cats into the environment, while an indoor (or confined outdoors) exotic animal is often viewed as a disease potentiality waiting to burst.
How common are rabies infections in exotic pets?
Number rabies infections reported to the CDC (2002-2011)
USA Population (captivity)
Rabies prevention for exotic pets
- Purchase animals that are captive-bred. Do no contact or keep animals that have lived in the wild as pets without proper experience.
- Keep animals indoors.
- Small animals that live outside can have enclosures made with small-perimeter hardware cloth or fencing to keep out bats in high-risk areas.
- Where legal, have exotic mammals vaccinated with a killed rabies virus vaccine.
This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t remain vigilant about a potential rabies case, and in some cases, carry out the euthanasia protocol, as even if a risk is small, it may be too much of a chance to take when an animal bites someone. But should exotic animals be restricted from ownership due to their ‘rabies threat’, despite there being little or no incidents of this common fear actually occurring? Exotic animals can still receive rabies vaccinations as well, further decreasing the risk of transmission. I’d say their track record of being found with rabies is very telling.
- Bites and Scratches from Zoo/Exotic Animals: Risk for Rabies?
- Wildlife, Exotic Pets, and Emerging Zoonoses1 - Vol. 13 No. 1 - January 2007 - Emerging Infectious D
- CDC - Publications - Rabies
- Rabies and the Domestic Ferret
- Bites and Scratches from Zoo/Exotic Animals: Risk for Rabies?
- CDC - Rabies Surveillance Data in the United States - Rabies
Rabies Surveillance Information for Wild Animals; Domestic Animals and Humans (2010)
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