State: Owners must get rabies shots for pets

Dogs, cats and ferrets must be current on rabies vaccinations beginning Jan. 1.

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WALLA WALLA - New year, new law, says the Washington state Department of Health.

Beginning Jan. 1, pet dogs, cats and ferrets in the state must be current on rabies vaccination.

Right now, cities and counties across the state have a mix of ordinances regarding the deadly viral illness that is spread primarily by infected animals, officials said. Every year, hundreds of people in Washington must get the series of rabies shots because of possible exposure to the virus.

The last domestic animal to test positive for the disease in the state was a Walla Walla barn cat in 2002, forcing a local family to undergo rabies vaccinations in what was a "multi-thousand dollar event," said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

In addition, the two family dogs were not current on vaccinations and ended up being euthanized because of the potential exposure to rabies, he said.

Afterward it was widely recognized the state needed to have a standard requirement across the board that met with current national guidelines, Crowder added.

In Walla Walla County, only dogs residing within the dog-control zones are required by law to be vaccinated. Neither city nor county rabies ordinances address cats or ferrets.

In Washington, bats are the primary source of rabies, with many bats testing positive each year across the state. Encounters with sick bats are one of the primary ways pets are exposed to rabies, and their owners can be exposed when they take the bats away from their pets. Cats are the most commonly affected domestic animal nationwide, with twice as many cats testing positive for rabies as dogs, according the state health department.

The most recent human rabies cases in the state were in 1995 and 1997.

At one time in Washington's early history, rabies was rampant in King and Pierce counties, with numerous animals and people contracting the disease. With the advent of rabies vaccinations, there was a dramatic decrease in animal rabies cases, officials said.

The new rule removes any doubt for every Washington resident which pets have to immunized, Crowder said. When a family is exposed to rabies, the cost of vaccination becomes very expensive at the four-series regimen of $220 per dose. On top of that, there is a human rabies immunoglobulin given the day the bite occurred. "That runs several thousands of dollars."

Pet owners are encouraged to talk to their veterinarians about vaccinating animals.

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