Is rabies really a threat these days? Although thousands of people die from rabies every year, it’s very rarely on American soil: a variety of regulatory bodies and agencies are devoted to protecting Americans from this deadly disease. Your pet will only rarely be exposed to the rabies virus itself, but those regulatory bodies can really make life difficult for the two of you.

Most of our pets would never bite, except under the most extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, perfect storms do occur from time to time: a guest trips over your elderly dog, a teenager enters your fenced yard innocently or otherwise, an affectionate child finally corners your reclusive kitty. Accidental bites during play are no different in the eyes of the law. Really small bites are not exempt. Even scratches can be a problem if someone on the scene doesn’t have their facts completely straight. Once a bite has occurred, the mighty wheels of justice begin to turn.

It’s wise to seek treatment for bite wounds, and doctors are required to record the exact circumstances of the injury, including the location of said dog or cat. The scene is now set for the board of health, animal control, and police to take action. If your pet has not been vaccinated against rabies in the last 12 months—and that is easily verified—you, the owner, are already guilty of “harboring a nonimmunized dog”. This is, in fact, a crime in the state of Indiana. Inoculated or not, the biting pet shall be “quarantined”, or observed for illness, for ten days at the owner’s expense. Healthy pets with a current rabies tag are sometimes allowed to complete quarantine at home, but nonimmunized pets will serve out their sentence among strangers. You, the criminal, will foot the bill. The police are usually not involved until you try to shirk your obligations, and their instructions are to seize the animal.

The state is going to have its way once a pet has bitten someone, and it’s a system that has worked very well. But things could always get worse: what if, in addition, the bitten individual (or his mom) is contacting a “dog bite lawyer” even now? How is it going to look to the lawyers if your pet was already in violation of the law before delivering the bite?

The possibility does exist that your animal was carrying the rabies virus when she made the rash mistake of biting human skin. Is it a remote possibility? Sure, but the potential consequences are dire. That’s why rabies statutes have been put in place—to protect humans—and they will be followed by the various agencies involved, regardless of how slight the risk may be. Once the massive cogs of the system have begun to turn, there’s no going back. It sure would be sad if you and your pet were squashed in the mighty machine because of a little bad luck and a schedule too tight to get into the vet.

Dr. M.S.Regan