Dr. George Abernathy kept reiterating one thing about animal rabies: Don’t mess around with it, period.

Dr. George Abernathy prepares to administer a rabies vaccine to a 3-month-old dog named Asher on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, at Sunrise Veterinary Clinic in Rio Rancho. Matt Hollinshead/Observer

With the recent report of a rabid fox in Catron County being the latest example, the Rio Rancho veterinarian urges pet owners to be proactive getting their animal companions vaccinated against the disease and to keep up on regular vaccination appointments.

“You don’t want to come down with rabies. It’s not a fun thing to happen,” said Abernathy, whose patients — dogs, cats and ferrets — at Sunrise Veterinary Clinic receive first- and second-year vaccines and subsequent vaccines every three years.

Abernathy said signs of rabies won’t appear until anywhere between one week and one year after first contact, and rabies vaccines must be administered before those signs appear.

“Once you show signs, the chances of you living go way, way, way down,” he said.

Abernathy said after a bite from a rabid animal, the virus follows the nerves up to the brain. The virus replicates itself in the brain, then comes back into the salivary glands, he said.

“Typically, from the time it’s in the salivary glands to the time that the animal’s dead, it’s just a few days,” he said. “Once (the virus) travels back to the salivary glands, now that animal’s contagious to everybody else.”

A common rabies source

Abernathy said bats in the Albuquerque metro area are known to carry rabies.

According to data from the New Mexico Department of Health, 13 bats in Bernalillo County tested positive for rabies since 2011. Sandoval County’s had three cases of rabid bats since 2019, while Santa Fe County reported a rabid bat in 2013 and another in 2017.

“The bats are all over the place,” Abernathy said.

He said it’s difficult to tell if a person or animal’s been bitten by a bat, given how tiny a bat bite mark is and because they don’t necessarily leave blood. That further reinforces the need for a pet to stay up to date on rabies shots.

“You don’t know if your animals were bit by a bat because it’s going to happen at night… There’s no marks, and you don’t know,” he said. “So, it’s very important to have your pets vaccinated. You don’t know when there’s going to be exposure, and there’s bats around all the time. In my backyard, I have a nightlight, and every summer I see the bats flying around.”

Preventative measures

Abernathy said people must make sure they don’t have any previous wounds or have an animal make contact with their face because rabies can spread through a bite or even a lick to such areas.

He said a pet may be asymptomatic after exposure or could start “attacking everybody.” He also said that just makes it harder to tell if one contracts the virus and harder to respond accordingly.

“The problem is, the signs are very, very vague,” he said.

Abernathy cited a past rabies outbreak in Doña Ana County in which one day puppies were friendly and kissing people, only to be found dead the next day.

“Everybody who got kissed by a puppy now had to go through rabies vaccines,” he said. “But the dogs were not aggressive, they were not feverish, they were just happy and they were dead.”

Abernathy said it’s much safer for pets to already be vaccinated against rabies before they’re potentially exposed to a rabid animal. If a person is exposed to or bitten by an animal that’s contracted rabies, whether their own pet or a wild animal, he said the treatment is an immunoglobulin shot followed by a rabies vaccine.

Abernathy said there are low-cost animal vaccination clinics in the metro area, adding Sunrise’s price is $27.50 per rabies shot.

“I’m sure they can find it even cheaper than that, but it has to be (done) by a veterinarian,” he said. “They should be able to get vaccines that are reasonable for their family, but it can save your life and it can save the life of your pet.”