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Rabies: Fact & Lore

Updated: May 25, 2023

A long history…

You may know that the relationship between humans and domesticated dogs reaches back at least 14,000 years, and probably much longer than that. It’s a strong bond that holds true today. But did you know that the earliest known mention of rabies was around 4000 years ago (23 BC)? Ancient Sumerian clay tablets tell of detailed accounts of rabies, and cite laws regarding the punishment should someone’s rabid dog cause the death of someone:

Though ancient civilizations understood that rabies was deadly, they did not understand completely what it was and how it was transmitted. There are myriad tales of incantations, folk remedies, and talismans that people used for centuries to try and cure those infected with rabies.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 – AD 79) was a Roman naturalist and author. He called Rabies Dog Tongue Worm. He thought there was a worm under the tongue of the infected causing the disease. He wrote that cutting off the tongue and giving it to the infected and having him walk around a fire three times would cure the infection. He also wrote that burning the hair of the tail of the infected dog and inserting it into the bite would cure rabies – and that is where the phrase “hair of the dog” comes from!

There was a Greek goddess, who was the embodiment of rage and rabies. Saint Hubert of Belgium (656 AD – 727 AD), the patron saint of hunters it was said, could cure rabies with a key given to him by Saint Peter. The key, heated in a fire, was used to cauterize the wound.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that a vaccine for rabies was discovered. The Father of Vaccinations, Louis Pasteur, first used the rabies vaccine he developed successfully in 1885.

There are many other stories and writings about the history of rabies. It’s a fascinating subject and deep dive. If you’re interested in more stories of the early musings about rabies, see Sources below. There are links that will take you down the rabbit hole.

Clearly, rabies has been a topic of concern for thousands of years, and of course, it still is. But thanks to Louis Pasteur, we have the tools and the science to prevent the spread of rabies.

What exactly is rabies?

Rabies is a highly infectious viral disease that is usually fatal if not treated. Those infected are commonly mammals, though it has been seen in birds. The most common way the rabies virus is transmitted is through bites from an infected animal.

The prevalence of rabies in cats is higher than in dogs in the United States because of the mandatory vaccination of rabies for dogs.

Rabies Vaccinations:

There are vaccinations for the prevention of rabies in animals. While there are vaccinations for humans, those aren’t normally used for prevention purposes unless they work in a job with a high probability of contracting rabies. Normally the vaccination for humans is used after being bitten by an animal that has, or may have rabies.

Thanks to the common use of rabies vaccinations in the United States, the number of infected animals has gone down considerably.

What if I get bitten by an animal?

If you or someone you know has been bitten by an animal known to have rabies, it is imperative that you get to a hospital immediately. There are a series of shots that can be administered which will halt the spread of infection. Even if you have had the rabies vaccination, you’ll need to get treatment. From the Mayo Clinic website, here is what rabies treatment includes:

· A fast-acting shot (rabies immune globulin) to prevent the virus from infecting you. This is given if you haven't had the rabies vaccine. This injection is given near the area where the animal bit you, if possible, as soon as possible after the bite.

· A series of rabies vaccinations to help your body learn to identify and fight the rabies virus. Rabies vaccinations are given as injections in your arm. If you haven't previously had the rabies vaccines, you'll receive four injections over 14 days. If you have had the rabies vaccine, you'll have two injections over the first three days.

How do I know if my pet has rabies?

If your pet is current on the rabies vaccination, your pet won’t get rabies.

If your animal is not current on the rabies vaccination and has been bitten, monitor their behavior closely. Any behavior modification in your pet after a bite could be an indicator of rabies. Call your veterinarian and get an appointment. If there is any chance you have caught the virus early, there might be treatment, like there is for humans, that can halt the spread of the virus. However, once the disease has caught on, the animal will need to be euthanized.

Vaccinate, Vaccinate, Vaccinate

The clearcut message of what we know is that rabies is manageable through vaccinations. Be sure to have your animals vaccinated and keep in touch with your veterinarian about keeping your pets current on their shots.


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