Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Get Rid of Rabies

Rabies vaccinations protect more than our pets. Wildlife benefits, too

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Just over a year ago, my husband and I were in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountain National Park, in search of Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis). The world’s rarest wild canid, numbering fewer than 500, is tall, with red fur and white markings on the legs and chest. They resemble a coyote or jackal, or perhaps a fox on stilts.

As with so many endangered animals, habitat loss is taking a toll on the species. Farmers move herds higher and higher into the mountains, seeking more grazing land for livestock. Another threat is interbreeding with free-ranging domestic dogs. Hybridization produces fertile offspring that are a genetic mixture and could eventually wipe out Ethiopian wolves as a distinct species. (This is a concern in other rare species as well, such as Scottish wildcats.)

But rabies is perhaps their greatest threat. Many of the wolves fall victim to the viral disease through encounters with domestic dogs. Rabies and other infectious diseases are a leading cause of mortality in African wild dogs, another rare species whose numbers are declining.

“Rabies transmission from domestic dogs into wild canid populations is a potential threat that can have devastating consequences,” says wildlife biologist Bill Given of Golden, Colorado.

It’s a human health issue as well. Approximately 59,000 people die annually from rabies, and the World Health Organization has a goal to eliminate human rabies deaths by 2030. Rabies is preventable through vaccination, but that’s easier said than done.

“There are 10,000-plus dogs drifting around the outside of this park,” says Guy Levene, managing director of Bale Mountain Lodge, where we stayed. “You can’t really vaccinate 10,000 dogs. All it takes is for one or two rabid dogs to get through, and your very delicate population of wolves is in danger.”

In Ethiopia, at least, vaccinating the wolves themselves is a more practical option because of their small population. Levene says oral rabies vaccines are available that can be placed in mouse-size pieces of meat and gobbled up by the wolves. They are closely monitored by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, so it’s easy to know which ones have taken the bait.

But rabies vaccination programs for wild dogs require local, political and economic support. If oral vaccines aren’t an option, it’s expensive, not to mention stressful to the animals, to capture individual wild dogs for vaccination. Local decision-makers can be reluctant to give the go-ahead for fear that the rare animals might not survive the experience.

What do rabies vaccinations for animals -- wild and domestic -- in other countries have to do with you and your pets? Public health everywhere includes animals. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, transmissible between animals and humans. Anti-rabies programs, such as the attempts to vaccinate Ethiopian wolves and the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s efforts to vaccinate domestic dogs and cats in Namibia, contribute to the worldwide One Health Initiative. In the United States, federal and state programs distribute oral vaccine doses in areas of Alabama, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

The OHI collaboration between veterinarians and human health experts expands and improves health care for animals and people and protects the environment. Land development and climate change affect habitat, often in ways that bring us in closer contact with wildlife. If you live in the western United States, for instance, you’ve probably seen this up close and personal, with coyotes, foxes, bears and even mountain lions making themselves at home in suburban and urban neighborhoods. That can result in greater transmission and spread of rabies, including to companion dogs and cats.

Vaccinating animals against rabies, anywhere in the world, helps to reduce the risk and incidence of rabies. Supporting rabies vaccination programs in tandem with protecting natural environments is good for wildlife, good for us and good for our domestic animals.

Q&A

Cat ears itchy?

Might be mites

Q: My cat keeps scratching at her ears. Does she have an infection?

A: That’s possible. She could also have an infestation of ear mites.

Ear mites are most common in kittens and cats who have come from community situations such as feral colonies or, in some cases, rescue or shelter housing, but any cat can get them. The microscopic invaders feed on ear wax and other skin debris and reproduce rapidly.

Cats with ear mites experience intense itchiness. You may notice them frequently shaking their heads and scratching at their ears to relieve the itch. In severe cases, they end up with raw skin or hair loss around the ears, often complicated by a bacterial infection.

If your kitten or cat’s ears have a dry, crumbly, dark-brown waxy discharge that looks like coffee grounds, chances are good that he has ear mites. If you have sharp eyes and examine a sample of the discharge through a magnifying glass, you may see the tiny white mites, about the size of a pinhead, moving around inside the ear wax.

Ear mites don’t affect humans, but they are highly contagious between cats and can spread to dogs, as well. That means that even if only one cat is diagnosed with the itchy critters, you’ll need to treat not only her, but also any other pets in the household.

The good news is that it’s much easier these days to treat ear mites. Your veterinarian or her technician will thoroughly clean out the ears and apply a topical medication. Back in the bad old days, a cat’s ears had to be treated regularly for as long as a month. Now, medicated ear drops in combination with a whole-body or systemic parasite treatment will get rid of mites much more quickly and easily. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Dog diversity

dates to Ice Age

-- A global study of ancient dog DNA, led by an international team of scientists and archaeologists, found evidence of at least five different types of dogs with distinct genetic ancestries. In the study, published last October in Science, researchers sequenced ancient DNA from skeletal remains of 27 dogs found across Europe, the Middle East and Siberia. The dogs, which lived as many as 11,000 years ago -- before other animals were domesticated -- are examples of early canine diversity during the time of hunter-gatherers. Over the last 10,000 years, these early dog lineages mixed and moved, giving rise to the dogs we know today. The researchers also compared the evolution in dog history to changes in human evolution, lifestyles and migrations. In many cases, comparable changes took place, likely reflecting how humans would bring their dogs with them as they migrated across the world. Studying the ancient DNA of dogs helps scientists learn more about human history. Greger Larson, author and director of the Palaeogenomics and Bio-Archaeology Research Network at the University of Oxford, says: “Dogs are our oldest and closest animal partner. Using DNA from ancient dogs is showing us just how far back our shared history goes and will ultimately help us understand when and where this deep relationship began.”

-- Have you met the nebelung? The long, slender cat with a wedge-shaped head; wide-set green eyes; large ears; dense, medium-length fur; and plumed tail takes his name from the German word “nebel,” meaning “mist” or “fog.” Nebelungs are often lap cats, known for their mild-mannered nature.

-- Pet ferrets are highly social and require frequent handling from an early age. The furry escape artists need a large, sturdy cage and home ferret-proofing to prevent them from squeezing into or out of tiny spaces. For good health, they must be spayed or neutered. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.