Rabies – the very name of this disease sparks images of slobbering biting dogs. Yet most of us have probably never seen an animal with rabies. Why is rabies something we should be worried about? What do we do to prevent rabies from cropping up? Why is travelling abroad and rabies linked? World Rabies Day is this month (28th September) so we thought it would be the perfect time to answer these questions and more.
Table of contents
- So What is Rabies?
- How Can I Protect Myself and My Animals Against Rabies?
- So the UK is Free of Rabies?
- What’s This New Scheme Then?
- So in Summary..?
- That Is Quite Inconvenient
- Final Thoughts
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So What is Rabies?
Rabies is a disease caused by a group of viruses commonly found in bats, as well as other wild animals. However, any mammal, including dogs, cats and humans, can catch it. Most infections are caused by being bitten by an infected animal. However it can also be spread via scratches, open wounds and other fluids. When an animal is infected, the virus travels to the brain via the nerves, and then to saliva, allowing it to be transmitted to more victims by biting. There is generally a long incubation period, the time between first being infected and first showing symptoms. It can be as long as weeks or months before an infected animal shows signs of the disease.
Rabies causes a number of symptoms
In animals, symptoms start with the animals being more quiet and nervous. After this, the disease presents in two different ways. The first is the most well-known, presenting as the classic rabid dog. Snimals are excitable, aggressive and biting, want to eat constantly and are very hyperactive. The other, and the more common presentation, causes paralysis, foaming at the mouth, drooling and facial changes. Animals can sometimes present with symptoms of both forms. In either case, these are the dangerous stages where there is a high risk of being bitten. Eventually, the animal dies after seizuring. The symptomatic stage lasts around 7 days. There is no cure once symptoms start.
Humans infected with rabies show similar symptoms.
Someone with rabies will have a headache, a fever, and may become partly paralysed. They will also show abnormal behaviour such as fear, paranoia, hallucinations, fear of water, and agitation. As with animals, the person almost always dies, after slipping into a coma – there is no cure.
The CDC estimates that 60,000 people die each year from rabies
They’re mostly in the developing world, and mostly due to being bitten by infected dogs. World Rabies Day is important for developing countries in particular as it brings awareness, resources and research to these countries with the goal of vaccinating animals to prevent these horrible deaths. Scientists say that by vaccinating at least 70% of dogs in an area, rabies can be controlled and human deaths prevented.
Here in the West, infections are thankfully incredibly rare due to our strong control of rabies. Most infections are either in people who have travelled abroad, or in individual cases where someone has had a lot of contact with bats.
How Can I Protect Myself and My Animals Against Rabies?
As we said above, there is no known cure for rabies once symptoms start. However, if a person is bitten or licked by an animal suspected of having rabies, they should immediately seek medical treatment. There are drugs that can prevent the rabies virus from replicating if given early enough. Avoiding contact with wildlife, any dead animals (especially bats in the UK) or pets with symptoms is also advised.
If you are travelling to an area known to have rabies and are particularly worried or going to be at higher risk (e.g. working with animals), you can get a course of rabies vaccines. These will protect you even if you are bitten by an infected animal. Although you should still seek medical attention if you are bitten, just in case.
There is a similar vaccine available for dogs, cats and other animals. If you are travelling, this will probably be mandatory (more on this later). But is definitely advised if your animals live in a country where rabies is present. For US readers, this includes you, as pets are infected every year by being bitten by rabid wildlife. For UK readers, the risk is very small, so only advised for those pets who travel abroad.
So the UK is Free of Rabies?
Sort of. We have officially been rabies-free since the early 1900s, except for small numbers of infected bats. The virus in dogs has been eliminated. This means there is practically no risk of catching rabies by being bitten by a dog in the UK (except if it has illegally travelled from abroad – which may be more common than we think). We are very lucky to have this status, partly due to us being an island, making it difficult for the virus to travel.
The other major reason we remain free of rabies is thanks to strict rabies control policies when travelling out of the country. Before Brexit, UK pets had to get EU Pet Passports before travelling abroad. These little blue books, which some of you may still have, detailed the different vaccines and other treatments pets needed before travel. In particular, a pet had to be fully vaccinated against rabies at least 21 days before travel. The Pet Passport scheme meant pets could move freely between countries in the EU without having to quarantine at either end, allowing pets up and down the country to enjoy weekend trips abroad. On a more serious note, it helped prevent rabies from re-entering the country and potentially causing the horrible death of pets or people from the disease.
Since our departure from the EU, UK pets are no longer eligible for Pet Passports and must rely on a new scheme that is rather more complicated.
What’s This New Scheme Then?
It’s not actually a new scheme, but an adoption of an existing scheme used for livestock for years. An animal travelling to Europe (including Northern Ireland) from the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) needs an Animal Health Certificate, or AHC. However, unlike the Pet Passport, each AHC is valid for one trip only. An AHC will cost £100-150 on average each (the previous Pet Passports cost around £60 and were valid for life).
To get an AHC, you will have to take your animal into a vet
This must be no more than 10 days before your trip – however, not every vet can complete an AHC. Only vets registered as Official Veterinarians (OV) can do this. To become an OV, a vet must complete a set amount of training. Generally, OVs aren’t common in small animal practice, as they are needed more for livestock and the meat industry. Thus, you may find your current vet is not an OV, and you will have to look for one elsewhere.
Once you have found an OV, they check that your pet is able to travel.
Firstly, your pet must have had a registered microchip put in before their vaccinations. Secondly, and relevant to today’s article, your pet must have been vaccinated against rabies – if they have never had a rabies vaccine before, it will need to be given at least 21 days before you travel. If they have had a rabies vaccine before, it must simply be up to date. Pets under 12 weeks cannot have a rabies vaccine, meaning they cannot travel to the EU under this scheme. Thirdly, the OV must check your pet’s vaccination record is correct. Finally, dogs will need treating for tapeworms either before or after your holiday – check with your vet for specific timings based on how long you are away and where you are going. You may have to find a local vet to give your dog tapeworm treatment abroad.
This new legislation means that someone who takes monthly trips to Northern Ireland with their dog will need a new AHC every time they travel.
All this may sound like a lot of hoops to jump through, but it gets even worse if you are travelling outside the EU.
The legislation for this is far too extensive to cover now, but requires blood testing and a lot more forms.
On the flip-side, for any Europeans (or Northern Irelanders!) wishing to enter the mainland UK with your pets, nothing has changed for you! Your current Pet Passport is still legal, so assuming it is up to date, we can welcome you and your pets here much more easily.
Note that this legislation only covers dogs, cats and ferrets – if you are travelling with other animals, you should contact the government for specific advice
All of the above information is correct as of August 2021.
So in Summary..?
In summary, if you are wanting to travel to the EU or Northern Ireland, your pet must:
- Be 12 weeks or older
- Be microchipped
- Either be a dog, cat or ferret
- Be up to date with their rabies vaccine
- Be travelling at least 21 days after their first ever rabies vaccine
- Have a full AHC completed by an OV up to 10 days before travel
- Have tapeworm treatment for some situations, if they are a dog
This will be required for every trip and you will need a new AHC every time.
That Is Quite Inconvenient
We agree! The new legislation is much more complex and more inconvenient than previous EU Pet Passports (another ‘unforeseen’ consequence of Brexit…) but with the UK no longer part of the EU, we are now officially a ‘part two listed’ country. Arguably, since the UK is free of rabies but the EU is not, changing our status seems unnecessary, but it turns out we couldn’t have our cake and eat it after all. The government is apparently lobbying the EU to change our status to ‘part one listed’, which would presumably reinstate some form of Pet Passport, but there has been no change made yet.
With regards to rabies, despite the new AHC system being a pain for both vets and owners, we recognise that some form of control is necessary. Rabies is a terrible disease for both humans and pets, and we would hate to see it brought back into the country. By having this kind of travel legislation, it ensures that UK pets with AHCs, and EU/Northern Irish pets with Pet Passports are rabies free and safe to travel. Legislation may change in future, but for now we are happy that the legislation protects UK pets and people from rabies.