Rabies can be matter of life or death for pets

Andrews McMeel Syndication

You probably know that your dog is required by law to have a rabies vaccination either annually or triennially (every three years). Most states allow owners to decide how often to give the vaccine. But there’s more to rabies-related law than frequency of vaccination. Here’s what you – and your veterinarian – should know.

Most of us assume that our pets are considered vaccinated for rabies once that needle enters the body. Not so. Pets are not considered “currently vaccinated” until 28 days after the initial injection, says Richard Ford, DVM, an internal medicine specialist and immunology expert who spoke at last month’s American Veterinary Medical Association conference in Indianapolis.

Your pet is considered overdue for a booster vaccine one day beyond the one-year or three-year date following the initial vaccination. By law, a pet is not considered immunized beyond that date, even though generally the only difference between a one-year and a three-year rabies vaccine is what it says on the label. In other words, even though a one-year vaccine generally offers the same protection as a three-year vaccine, in law there is no tolerance. Once your pet is revaccinated, though, he returns immediately to “currently vaccinated” status, regardless of the amount of time that has elapsed since the vaccine was due.

Are cats required to have rabies vaccinations? At least nine states do not mandate rabies vaccinations for cats. In fact, Missouri, Kansas and Ohio have no state laws mandating rabies vaccinations for any pets. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to have it done, especially if you allow your pet to go outdoors. In 2015, 244 cases of rabies involving cats were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 58 percent of all reported cases involving domestic animals that year.

If your pet is currently unvaccinated and bites or scratches someone – the usual routes of exposure – it’s not an automatic death sentence for your pet. It’s sometimes assumed that euthanasia followed by testing of the brain for rabies is required, but that’s not so. Whether a pet is currently vaccinated, the law in the majority of states calls for a 10-day quarantine in the owner’s home, followed by revaccination of the pet.

Pets who have been exposed to rabies – and the definition of “exposure” varies from state to state – face a stiffer quarantine of 45 days at home. That’s only if they are considered to be currently vaccinated, however. Pet owners must generally be able to document that the rabies vaccination is current.

An unvaccinated pet who is exposed is generally subject to a four-month strict quarantine at a facility for that purpose. That can cost several thousand dollars. The pet must be vaccinated at the time of entry and sometimes within 96 hours of exposure.

Pets who are not up to date on their rabies vaccinations and bite someone may, however, face euthanasia if the person who was bitten isn’t willing to wait for the animal to complete the 10-day home quarantine. Dr. Ford cited the case of a dog who was two months late for a rabies booster vaccine. The dog bit the child next door, and the parent insisted that the dog be euthanized and tested immediately. The public health department concurred, and the dog lost his life. Examination of brain tissue determined that he was not infected with rabies.

Some pet owners would like to skip rabies vaccinations for animals who are old or have illnesses that could put them at greater risk of a vaccine reaction. They wonder if a rabies titer test can be used to establish immunity.

The answer is no. In law, a rabies titer is not recognized as a valid index of protection. Only 16 states allow veterinarians to exempt pets from rabies vaccinations for health reasons.

More information on rabies requirements is available at

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with