My family’s three-year-old sheepdog, Mac, used to panic at loud noises. During a thunderstorm, he ran a couple of miles from home. Shivering and foaming at the mouth, he pawed at the door of the local convent. The nuns thought Mac was rabid, so they had their handyman kill him with a gun.
This incident happened sixty years ago, but I never forgot Mac. When I recently started researching rabies I wondered why, so many years after the 19th-century discovery of a canine rabies vaccine, a dog living in a suburban town could so easily have been suspected of being rabid.
What I learned is that, even more than a century later, there are still animals who lose their lives simply because the fear of rabies is still so prevalent–much more common than the disease itself.
Like we’ve all seen in the movies, rabies can indeed make for a Cujo-like aggressive, growling, biting machine that attacks strange objects like stones (sometimes biting so hard that it can break its teeth). A rabid dog’s pupils are constantly dilated. During the final stage, it can’t swallow and foams at the mouth.
Rabies is rare, but indeed fearsome. It carries the awful inevitability of a terrible death, and its cause is most often a bite from the “poisoned tooth” of man’s best friend. Until the post World War I invention of the electron microscope, which made it possible to see the rabies virus, no one could be sure about how it was transmitted.
In the past, veterinarians, medical doctors, journalists, and dog lovers, all debated about whether the disease even existed at all, and if it did, what caused it and how it could be controlled. Progress toward understanding and controlling it did not move in a steady upward path.
Part of the delay in conquering rabies has to do with the fact that dog lovers didn’t want to think their beloved pets could become “mad” and kill people; many speculated that dogs who displayed symptoms must have simply been thirsty or had another disease. There were also those who wanted to keep dogs in the “lower animals” category; they did not want to believe that dogs had the power to spread a dread disease to humans.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, control of rabies in the United States consisted mostly of stopgap measures in response to a scare. The country was too vast, the federal government too weak, the populace too recalcitrant to establish long-lasting control measures. However, newspapers and magazines, medical men, veterinarians, public authorities, and even humane societies could agree on one solution: destruction of stray dogs to control rabies, though some objected to the killing methods and raised doubts about how many stray dogs actually carried the disease.
Immediate killing was not a good idea because if a dog died in the disease’s early stages, it was impossible to determine that it really had the disease. There were some cases where small animals, like guinea pigs, were injected with saliva of the dog after it was put down; if the tester animal also appeared to become rabid, area dogs would all become suspect. In most communities, the problem was dealt with by bring any questionable cases to the pound and, after a period of observation, destroying them. However, when a person, particularly a child, died from rabies, the ensuing panic could cause an immediate massacre. In November 1905, in Hackettstown, NJ, a child’s death triggered a “war.” The mayor appointed three dog hunters to wipe out all the dogs and cats. The mayor himself carried a revolver. All in all, 70 were dogs killed.
In 1852, British veterinarian William Youatt suggested that quarantine was an answer to the problem, and a half-century later Great Britain inaugurated a quarantine of dogs entering the country, which, with other controls, virtually eradicated the disease there. In spite of the fact that the English found clever ways to smuggle a dog into the country (by dressing it as a human baby, for example), quarantine worked because of the country’s sea-protected borders.
Rabies’ turning point came in 1884, when Louis Pasteur developed a way of vaccinating dogs with a series of injections: he grew the virus in rabbits, then dried the effected nerve tissue and used this to create an inoculator. In 1885, he tested it on a local boy who’d been bitten by a rabid dog. (The boy, Joseph Meister survived, and grew up to be a groundskeeper at the Pasteur Institute, allegedly committing suicide so as not to have to see the Nazi’s force their way into his saviour’s crypt during the World War II occupatin of Paris.)
Pasteur’s discovery, and Meister’s recovery, was the beginning of a long, bitterly contested path to mass vaccination of dogs. Experiments confirmed that Pasteur’s vaccinations worked. In 1921, Japan accomplished successful mass inoculations. Similar programs were suggested for the United States in the 1920s but never got off the ground. However, some individuals vaccinated their dogs, and city-wide and regional mass vaccination attempts were made, despite facing protests from groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the anti-vivisectionists, the American Kennel Club, and the American Veterinary Association.
Behind many protests lay the objection to governmental intrusion into citizens’ lives, exacerbated by the fact that vaccination was a real intrusion of “foreign matter” into the body. Moreover, some said, pharmaceutical companies were colluding with veterinarians and government authorities to promote forced vaccination because profits were to be made.
Dog fanciers and hunters didn’t want to subject their valuable dogs to vaccination; anti-vaccination groups argued that rabies was rare, that successful mass vaccination was close to impossible in a country like the United States, and that dog vaccination would not affect rabies in the wildlife population. They also argued that other means of control could be just as effective.
In 1949, a conference of state health departments and the Communicable Disease Center recommended national dog rabies vaccination, along with the swift elimination of stray dogs, and the compulsory registration of pet dogs. Though other species-specific strains of the rabies virus are still around in bats, raccoons, and foxes, canine rabies virus has been virtually eliminated from the United States. The latest statistic from the World Health Organization shows that in 2006, only four Americans died of rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009 the US saw 81 rabies cases in dogs and 300 in cats, probably caused by strains of the virus still present in wildlife
Looks like we’ve finally conquered this scary beast. But it took too long. Too many dogs died needlessly in the interim, my Mac included.