Rabies: My experience

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Sep 28, 2009
By dvm360.com staff
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In 1955, during my first year in a mixed-animal practice in the Finger Lakes area of New York, I received a phone call just as I was preparing to leave and go home for dinner. The call was from a client who was a farmer. He told me that his young beagle seemed to have something stuck in its mouth as it would not close. He had felt around in its mouth but had found nothing.

Warning bells went off in my head. I advised him to bring the dog in immediately. He arrived in about 20 minutes with a dull-looking animal—its lower jaw was hanging and the pupils of its eyes were different sizes, one was large and was one pinpoint-sized. I told him his dog was very ill, and I had him pick up the dog from the exam table and follow me to our tiny isolation ward.

Once we were there, I had him place the dog in a cage with a dish of water. I then informed him that his dog likely had a fatal disease, but I would pursue a firm diagnosis. When he left the office, I quickly called the state veterinarian who lived in our town and was a friend of mine. I told him that I thought I might have a case of ‘dumb rabies.’ He quickly came over and looked at the dog in the cage. After rattling the cage door and waving a cigarette lighter in front of the dog—with no response from either test—he pronounced it as a case of canine distemper. He pointed out that there had been no cases of rabies in Steuben County in more than 35 years. The practice owner later agreed with him after viewing the dog.

When the dog died the next day, I removed the head and express mailed it to the veterinary college at Cornell University for a brain exam. A veterinarian at Cornell excitedly called me back the next day to inform me that the brain had indeed tested positive for rabies. I immediately called the farmer and told him to see his doctor for a rabies vaccine.

This case was the first in a massive outbreak of rabies in central New York. Cases were diagnosed in cats, dogs, cows, and horses as well as some wild animals. The entire area was quarantined, and no animals could be shipped or sold. A huge vaccination program was put in place and went on for months. And all of this started with one little beagle. Thanks to an excellent education at the veterinary college at Cornell, my alarm bell had gone off when I needed it. This is just one example of why we veterinarians must always be alert. The world depends on us.

Bud Stuart, DVM
Santa Barbara, Calif.