A bill that passed the state Senate this week could change the way rabies vaccinations are given to some household pets.
Senate Bill 155, sponsored by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, exempts dogs and cats from receiving the vaccination if it could be detrimental to the health of the animal. The bill passed Monday, 48-2, with supporting votes from area senators Lisa Baker, John Yudichak and John Blake. It will be referred to the state House.
For years, pet owners in the state have been required to vaccinate cats and dogs older than 3 months, and booster vaccinations are due every three years.
Under the bill, “an exemption from vaccination against rabies … may be granted if a licensed veterinarian examined the dog or cat and determines that is would be medically contraindicated to vaccinate.” Pet owners would receive a one-year exemption, after which their animal would have to be re-examined.
According to information from Greenleaf’s office, the change would put Pennsylvania in line with 17 other states that provide an exemption to the rabies vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes rabies as a virus that infects the central nervous system, “ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.” The CDC recommends that unvaccinated pets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately and that animals with expired vaccinations should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Despite the danger the disease carries, the proposed bill is a positive change, SPCA of Luzerne County Shelter Manager Cindy Starke said.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it. If the animal is going to be harmed by being vaccinated, that’s not good,” she said. “The original rabies law was written in 1986, and things have changed significantly since then.”
Veterinarian Dr. Inayatullah Kathio, of the Pittston Animal Hospital, said he has vaccinated “over 50,000 animals,” and less than 0.5 percent of those he has vaccinated have had adverse reactions.
Kathio said some animals might experience anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction resulting in a swelling of the face and possible choking. Animals with heart, liver or autoimmune diseases would most likely be exempt from vaccination due to a threat to their health.
Because of the threat a vaccine might present, Kathio said he would support a change in the law that provides for a case-by-case exemption. “It’s good for the welfare of the animal,” he said, adding that any animal that is given an exemption should be monitored more closely by its owner to prevent contact with wildlife.
Domestic animals accounted for just 8 percent of all rabid animals reported in the United States in 2010, according to the CDC.
Rabies is attributed to only two or three deaths in humans each year. The CDC does not list any rabies cases in Pennsylvania residents from 1995 to 2011. Progress in slowing the spread of the virus is attributed to animal control and vaccination programs that started in the 1940s and the development of effective human rabies vaccines.
Starke said that exemptions would likely be infrequent, at best. Veterinarians ultimately will know what’s best for your animals, and the exemption certainly doesn’t lessen the need for the vaccine, she said.
“It is extremely important that you have your pet vaccinated for rabies,” Starke said. “Even if you always keep your pet indoors, accidents happen.”