Rabies Vaccination Status and Laws: Their Potential Impact on Your Companion Dog’s Lifestyle

The Rabies Challenge Fund published results demonstrated that duration of immunity to the rabies vaccine in dogs is at least five years. With that said, there is currently no option at this time for a companion dog parent to only vaccinate dogs against rabies every five years, after the 2 initial doses have been given within 12 months. States, counties, and municipalities create the laws for rabies vaccinations in dogs. This is not a matter of big government impinging on the rights of individuals and their companion pets, but is a matter of public health safety.

Please do not break or flout the law regarding rabies vaccinations. It could result in your companion dog’s quarantine, impounding, or even death if you do so…and probably not from rabies.

What can we as citizens do to extend the rabies vaccination intervals to five years?

We would need to advocate that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve the licensing of a five-year rabies vaccination interval for dogs. Even though the Rabies Challenge Fund and M.F. Aubert in France demonstrated the efficacy of a five-year interval between rabies vaccinations with two separate trials twenty years apart, the USDA may require another trial because mortality from rabies is essentially 100% and – if caught too late – will more than likely already have spread to other animals and humans.

After that, the vaccine would need to be approved by a particular state’s department of agriculture and a pharmaceutical company would have to start producing it.

Yes; it is a big undertaking. You are more than welcome to take up the cause, and Kris Christine, Co-Trustee of the Rabies Challenge Fund, can give you assistance.

If you want to start petitioning for changes to rabies laws, we would suggest looking at the complete picture regarding all laws about dogs.

Indeed, state rabies vaccination laws are not complex, but are typically nestled or tied to several other laws. For the majority of states, the law is an initial vaccination during puppyhood, a one-year booster, and every three years after that with some differences between states. Additionally, rabies vaccines must be administered by a licensed veterinarian.

An aspect of the complete picture introduces one element of several complexities to the mix. Depending on the state, a county or municipality’s law could supersede a state’s law. For instance, a state law could require a puppy to be vaccinated against rabies by six months of age. However, a county or municipality’s law could require vaccination by four months of age.

The additional complexities are regarding the rabies vaccination status of a dog. As mentioned previously, rabies vaccination status is interwoven with separate laws such as dog bite laws, quarantine laws, running at large laws, leash laws, dog rabies tag laws, and medical exemptions from the rabies vaccine. Again, all of these can be different or more narrow at the city level depending on how a state structures its laws and constitution.

We discuss below some of the laws you could introduce or change. Even if you change a law regarding rabies vaccinations, it could be all for naught because of an existing statute.

Medical Exemption Laws

18 states have medical exemptions to rabies vaccines: Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Medical exemption laws can vary by state. Broadly speaking, the states that have medical exemption laws need proof that a dog is immunocompromised, has another condition such as cancer, is receiving treatment that will be compromised by the vaccination, or has had a documented adverse reaction to a vaccine. A veterinarian applies for a waiver on behalf of the dog. After that, the medical exemption usually is passed up to a county or state veterinarian and public health official for final approval.

When seeking a waiver, the Rabies Challenge Fund strongly advises that a rabies serum antibody titer test be performed. Adequate serum rabies titers in the USA are at least 0.1 IU/ml (formerly stated as a 1:5 dilution) by the Rapid Fluorescent Focus Inhibition Test (RFFIT) method. The standard set by the World Health Organization (WHO) is 0.5 IU/ml.

A titer alone at the 0.1 IU/ml level or above is not justification to waive the required rabies vaccination boosters. A titer just indicates that an animal has mounted an immune response to vaccination & has the specified level of protection to the rabies virus. In other words, titer is simply an assurance to the medical exemption grantors that a dog has the specified protection against the virus.

If you would like to push for medical exemption waivers in your state, Kris Christine can provide suggestions.

Why do titer laws not exist as a basis for an exemption?

We could see the argument for such legislation based on the import and export of dogs in rabies-free countries and Hawaii. The Fluorescent Antibody Virus Neutralization (FAVN) is the titer test required by Hawaii and most rabies-free countries. A passing FAVN result (≥= 0.5 IU/mL) provides proof of adequate response to rabies vaccination and can shorten the quarantine time in these areas. Of course, one may need to prove that there has never been an instance under these circumstances that a dog was infected with the virus.

By the way, the two laboratories approved by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for the FAVN test for importation into or exportation from the United States are Kansas State University and Auburn University. Each university may not have the same approvals based on country of destination.

We could also see the argument that WHO’s RFFIT titer test level of 0.5 IU/ml or greater suffices for adequate protection, therefore it should be legalized.

Kris Christine states, “As there is yet no rabies titer standard which has been established by governmental challenge studies in canines, it is unlikely that any state will pass legislation accepting them in place of current vaccination. Titers are a solid indicator that an animal has mounted an immune response to vaccination and has some level of protection, though until there are adequate data based on the same challenge criteria used for licensing rabies vaccines demonstrating that 88% of dogs exposed to rabies did not contract the disease at titers at or above a specific level, there are no solid data upon which to change current laws or protocols.”

Draconian Laws

Draconian laws do exist in several states and need to be revised – and this is where you could possibly make an immediate difference. For example, in Iowa:

“Right and duty to kill untagged dog: It shall be lawful for any person, and the duty of all peace officers within their respective jurisdictions unless such jurisdiction shall have otherwise provided for the seizure and impoundment of dogs, to kill any dog for which a rabies vaccination tag is required, when the dog is not wearing a collar with rabies vaccination tag attached.”

A scenario where this might be legal (but barbaric) could entail a frightened companion dog escaping his home due to a loud thunderclap or fireworks. The collar with the current tag falls off along the way. The neighbor three or four houses down shoots the unknown dog because the town or county does not have an animal shelter.

Repealing the entire law may be difficult, even if it is your goal. You may need to consider a total repeal after other qualifiers have been implemented. Qualifiers could be: tranquilization; only can be killed by peace officers; only unleashed or not securely confined dogs; exhibiting aggressive behavior; and/or, the dog is running at large without the owner present, in sight or actively seeking out the dog.

When Rabies Vaccinations Make a Difference

Bats, skunks and raccoons are the top spreaders of rabies in the United States currently. What if your companion dog comes into contact with one? Your dog’s unvaccinated, non-current or current vaccination status does make a difference.

New York City’s regulations are pretty much the standard across the country with some variations in length of quarantine time, prophylactic vaccinations, and place of quarantine.

As a basis, animal rabies surveillance in New York City began in 1992. Since then, more than 600 animals have tested positive for rabies in the city, the majority of which were raccoons.

NYC’s regulation states:

“Any dog or cat that may have been exposed to a rabid animal should be reported to the Health Department. The department will work with the pet owner and their veterinarian to determine appropriate follow up.

Dogs and cats that have never been vaccinated are required to either be euthanized or isolated for up to six months in a facility under daily veterinary observation. Dogs and cats whose rabies vaccinations are not current, and pets with bite wounds of unknown origin, will be managed on a case-by-case basis.

Dogs and cats that are currently rabies vaccinated should immediately receive a booster vaccine. They must also be confined and observed for 45 days in the owner’s home.”

Now, that is if your dog comes into contact with, scratched, or bitten by one of these animals.

His rabies vaccination status ultimately affects his lifestyle, ability to socialize, length of quarantine, and where he is quarantined.

By the way, your dog’s vaccination status also makes a difference if your dog bites a person or another animal.

Responsible Dog Companionship

Breed specific legislation is discriminatory and has not been proven to enhance public safety. All dogs may bite. We have heard of all breeds including Chihuahuas and Golden Retrievers biting or exhibiting aggression. The cause of the biting could be due to training, cognitive decline, undiagnosed hypothyroidism, sex, socialization, use of certain drugs and parasite preventives, previous experiences, and a slew of other reasons.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) brings up a very good point. When animal control is directed to banning a breed, it is diverted from enforcement of other laws such as leash laws.

For this post, we have read articles from all over North America regarding leash laws and the companion parents that flout them. To be honest, we think justifications by pet guardians as to why a particular dog should not be leashed in a populated city or town are naïve, indignant, self-centered, and not in the best interest of anyone – even the unleashed dog.

Instead of standing up for the leashed dogs and humans that leash, what are the consequences that unleashed dogs and their humans might endure, and the impact of their actions on society?

#1. Diseases.

In 2018, New York City asked residents to keep their companion dogs leashed in Central Park due to an outbreak of distemper amidst the park’s raccoon population. The majority of dogs are vaccinated against distemper – which reduces the likelihood of the disease’s spread to dogs – but a dog could still catch it from a diseased raccoon. Remember, raccoons can also spread rabies.

For instance, let’s say an unleashed dog catches a whiff of littered French fries and bounds for it. The unleashed dog disturbs a raccoon while seeking the fries. The raccoon then defensively bites the dog.

#2. Fines.

#3. Liabilities.

“The owner of a dog shall be liable to an injured party for all damages done by the dog, when the dog is caught in the action of worrying, maiming, or killing a domestic animal, or the dog is attacking or attempting to bite a person, except when the party damaged is doing an unlawful act, directly contributing to the injury.”

We know of leashed dogs that suffer the long-term psychological effects of being maimed by unleashed dogs. So, an unleashed dog that may approach a leashed dog – with ongoing trauma due to a previous event – which can cause the leashed dog to worry or snap.

#4. Eviction depending on where they live.

#5. Justification to maintain draconian laws such as the one above.

#6. Impoundment.

#7. Gossip.

Companion dog parents express ire toward unleashed dog owners and people who do not pick up their dog’s poop.

Municipalities have constructed and continue to construct off-leash areas (OFA) or dog parks so companion dogs can be off-leash. Starting a campaign to build an OFA is more constructive and friendly than arguing with neighbors.

Summary

Rabies vaccination laws should be adapted and updated based on the current risk of the disease in the United States and Canada, and elsewhere, but it will take time. We have to remember the other dog-related laws that are independent of, or slightly dependent on, rabies laws. Many are well-meaning for the health and safety of every dog and person. But, the draconian laws need to be repealed or revised. Flouting the rabies vaccination laws will only keep the draconian laws in place. Time is better spent changing the draconian for the good of one and all.

Additional Resources

Dodds, W. Jean. Rabies Virus Does Exist. Hemopet, 13 May 2023, https://hemopet.org/rabies-virus-does-exist/.

Dodds, W. Jean. “Rabies: The Science & the Current Law.” Pet Health Resource, Tumblr, 11 July 2015, https://drjeandoddspethealthresource.tumblr.com/post/123835271561/rabies-vaccine-law#.ZCniWHbMLIX.

Phenix, Annie. Leash Your Dog. It’s the Law for a Number of Very Good Reasons. Dogster, 18 June 2015, https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/leash-your-dog-its-law-for-number-very-good-reasons.

Phenix, Annie. What to Do When an Off-Leash Dog Approaches Your Leashed Dog. Dogster, 6 Aug. 2015, https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/what-to-do-when-an-off-leash-dog-approaches-your-leashed-dog.

Shaw Becker, Karen. What Every Pet Parent Needs to Know About Rabies. Barks & Whiskers, 12 Mar. 2023, https://www.barkandwhiskers.com/what-is-rabies/.

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