Animal Shelter's Rabies Mistake Prompts Change In Procedure

| by Phyllis M Daugherty

The Halifax County Animal Shelter in Virginia has revised its adoption rules since sending a family home with a rabid dog, reports WBDJ7 News.

Last month the animal shelter was overcrowded with dogs and cats, so a local animal-rescue group asked to foster a stray dog with six puppies. The animals had just been impounded at the shelter two hours before. 

Todd Moser, Animal Warden for Halifax County, told WBDJ7 that there were no visible signs of illness, and both the mom and her pups seemed fine. However, two days later the mother dog was tested and diagnosed with rabies. She and her pups were euthanized as a prophylactic step to assure they would not come in contact with any other animals or humans and possibly spread the rabies virus.

Seven people were treated for post-exposure to rabies, including the foster family and shelter staff.

According to the WBDJ7 report, it takes about 10 days for an animal to start showing signs of rabies, and because of the only two-hour window that the dogs were impounded, staff had no clues that the dog and pups might be ill. They decided to release the animals into a safer and more hygienic environment.

Staff sanitized the area and recently changed protocol, the shelter reports. Now when an animal is impounded, it's monitored for signs of any disease, and the animal welfare groups are not given immediate access to the animals. "We are very reluctant on letting anybody or any rescue [group] foster the animals prior to their time to be released," Moser told WDBJ7.

According to Moser, dogs could show signs of rabies even after the monitor period which is why environmental health professionals recommend taking the pet to get rabies shots and checked out by the veterinarian before its paws step into your home.

Drs. Scott Weese and Maureen Anderson of the Ontario Veterinary College's Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, coordinate a website called Worms & Germs “which focuses on infectious diseases of companion animals (household pets and horses), with an emphasis on zoonotic diseases - diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people.”

In regard to the sad occurrence (above) at Halifax, Dr. Weese posted on December 10, 2014, “Yes, that’s an ‘oops’, but it’s also not completely preventable."

He continues: “It is a common and logical thing to try to get the puppies into a lower-risk environment prior to adoption. However, any unknown animal carries some risk, and that was a problem here.”

Dr. Weese explains that the comment by the shelter that “it takes about 10 days for an animal to start showing signs of rabies” is incorrect. “It can take much longer,” he writes.

“The 10d [ay] window is what we used after an animal has bitten someone, because an animal that is shedding the virus will become ill with rabies within a 10d window. However, the incubation time….the time from when an animal is exposed to the time it develops disease, can be months.”

Dr. Weese states that the customary 10-day quarantine period for new arrivals at a shelter is good for some things, “but doesn’t mean that the dog won’t develop signs of rabies later.”

In regard to the statement by the shelter official that “staff sanitized the area,” Dr. Weese responds that this procedure is “not really needed.” He explains, “Rabies isn’t spread through contact with the general environment [but sanitizing is] good for the shelter overall."

Dr. Weese concludes:

It sounds like it would have helped them pick up this dog as being rabid before it was sent out, but it won’t prevent all cases like this from occurring. it’s a tough balance between monitoring for signs of disease and wanting to get the animal out of the shelter asap (because of shelter space issues, to reduce the change of the animal being exposed to something in the shelter…). there’s no perfect approach.”


The World Health Organization (WHO) states:

Rabies is a zoonotic disease (a disease that is transmitted to humans from animals) that is caused by a virus. The disease affects domestic and wild animals, and is spread to people through close contact with infectious material, usually saliva, via bites or scratches…Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is nearly always fatal.

 “Rabies can be transmitted when an infected animal scratches or bites another animal or human. Saliva from an infected animal can also transmit rabies if the saliva comes into contact with a mucous membrane of another animal or human. Most rabies cases in humans are the result of dog bites...The rabies virus travels to the brain by following the peripheral nerves. The disease can only be diagnosed after the start of symptoms.

“Animal control and vaccination programs have decreased the risk of rabies from dogs in a number of regions of the world… In people who have been exposed to rabies, the rabies vaccine and sometimes rabies immunoglobulin are effective in preventing the disease, if the person receives the treatment before the start of rabies symptoms.”

Medical professionals also recommend keeping your pets away from wild animals.

Dan Richardson, the Environmental Health Manager for Southern Virginia, says, “People need to get their dogs and cats vaccinated. You’re playing Russian roulette when you turn the cat out at night and it doesn’t have the vaccine.”

Sources: WDBJ7,, Worms and Germs Blog / Photo Credit: WDBJ7, Wikimedia Commons