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Rabies Laws: Proposed Vaccination Laws

Vaccinations and California Bill AB 272


The bill AB 272 was introduced by Assembly Member Jimmy Gomez February 7, 2013. The bill addresses the California Health and Safety Code, which currently specifies puppies should receive rabies vaccinations at age four months. AB 272 proposes this age be amended to three months. The proposed amendment comes in response to an increase in rabies-infected bats in Los Angeles County.

Why should it matter to me if I don’t live in California? Many times trends start in California and spread to the rest of the country.

Why Change The Age for the First Rabies Vaccine?

The legislation seems to have originated with the acting director of the public health group in L.A. County, Dr. Karen Ehnert, a veterinarian. She’s expressed concern about the increase in cases of bat rabies in the county over the past couple of years.

However, according to other experts, the numbers don’t add up. Well-known holistic veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodds points out there have been no cases of dog rabies in the Los Angeles area since 2010. Further, there were only three cases of dog rabies in all of California from 2007 to 2010, and some of those involved animals that came in from out of state.

Investigating The Question

To clarify the issues for a more informed opinion, I did my own investigation. I called the office of Assembly Member Jimmy Gomez who introduced the bill to the legislature. I also wanted to talk with Dr. Ehnert, and was told that she needed permission from the External Communications Office to speak to someone outside the department. To date (July 2013), I have not heard from anyone.

Instead I viewed a February 17, 2011 video about rabies by Dr. Emily Beeler from the same department, which stated the primary source of rabies in Los Angeles County was from bats. I learned additional rabies information from the video, including a historical perspective:

  • In 1937 there were 1,730 cases of rabid dog bites in LA County. In 1956, a law was passed requiring dogs to be vaccinated against rabies, and the number of cases dropped dramatically.
  • In the entire United States, one to three people/year die from bat bites. In 2006 and 2007, two people in California died from rabies, but they were bitten from animals outside the US that happened to die in California. There has been an increase in importation of animals from other (third world) countries as well as smuggling them into the US.
  • The animals most likely to carry rabies are bats and skunks. The bites from dogs in Los Angeles County are a very low risk. There have been no cases of dog rabies in California since 2010. Anyone who has knowledge of a dog bite is legally required to report to Animal Control [even puppy bites from normal puppy teething!]
  • The Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health collaborates with Animal Control and over half of rabies reports come from Animal Control. Bats and other wildlife are more likely to carry rabies than dogs, with 10 to 14 percent of bats testing positive for rabies.
  • Bat bites can go undetected because their teeth are so small. They do not have to grab and hold but just break the skin. The person or animal must actually come in contact with bat saliva – simply being in proximity of a bat does not expose people to rabies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, “The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva or brain/nervous system tissue. You can only get rabies by coming in contact with these specific bodily excretions and tissues. It's important to remember that rabies is a medical urgency (sic) but not an emergency. Decisions should not be delayed.”

Bat Rabies On the Rise?

According to the Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health Department website, an average of 8 to 10 rabid bats are discovered annually in the county, but that increased in 2011 with a total of 38 rabid bats found. This was the largest number of rabid bats detected in a single year since LA County began testing bats for rabies in the early 1960s. The reason for the increase was unknown. It is this increased incidence that seems to have prompted the proposed bill amendment.

However, for the current year, a total of five rabid bats have been found in Los Angeles County as of May 23, 2013. Most bats in nature do NOT have rabies. The department has not reported any cases of either dog or cat rabies. So is changing the puppy rabies vaccination time frame really necessary?

Dr. Dodds questions the need for changing the age of puppy rabies vaccine administration. She points out that there is no vaccination requirement for cats in California, although cats contract rabies more often than dogs.

Dr. Dodds believes the proposed amendment seeks to address a problem in the canine community that does not exist, since bats and other wildlife pose the major threat of rabies transmission to the public, not dogs under the age of four months. Only 40 percent of the dogs in California get any vaccines, period. Since no dog has gotten rabies in several years, she believes the current law requiring puppies to be vaccinated at four months of age is and has been effective in controlling rabies in California’s canine population.

Not everyone agrees with Dr. Dodds. Read more of the debate in this question and answer interview about rabies vaccination schedules with both Dr. Dodds and veterinarian Dr. Linda Breitman.

UPDATE: CALIFORNIA AB 272 was amended 7/2/13requiring puppies receive rabies vaccinations by the age of four months.

Caryl Wolff is a Los Angeles-based dog trainer and dog behavior consultant certified through IAABC, NADOI and CPDT and other canine professional organizations. She can be reached through her www.DoggieManners.com site.

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