Rabies: The Science & the Current Law

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There is the science behind having sufficient rabies immunity; then, there is the current United States law on rabies vaccinations for dogs.

To synchronize the law with the science, the Rabies Challenge Fund Charitable Trust (RCF) is financing clinical trials to extend the legally required interval for rabies boosters to 5 and then 7 years. Kris Christine and I are Co-Trustees of RCF and Ronald Schultz, PhD of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is the Principal Investigator. The testing is being conducted according to the USDA’s vaccine licensing code, Title 9 Section 113.209, and at the Kansas State University (KSU) Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. My team at Hemopet runs the administrative end at no cost to the RCF.

Over the years, I have written extensively on vaccine issues and have provided more information in the links at the bottom. The purpose of this article is to address the common misunderstandings that can lead to concerns and criticisms of the current laws about rabies vaccines.  While I fully appreciate your concerns, the law is still the LAW.

Below is general information on rabies laws throughout all 50 states. If you have questions, I recommend that you discuss specific laws that apply to your state or local area (counties and cities can enact more stringent laws than the state or federal government) with your veterinarian or local public health authority.

The Rabies Vaccine
• Rabies vaccines are provided either annually (1-year vaccine) or every three years (3-year vaccine). The one year vaccine is given initially and then is followed up by a booster within 12 months; the booster given is the 3 year vaccine. Thereafter, boosters are required every three years. Please note that some states or locales still allow annual rabies boosters as an option at the discretion of the attending veterinarian.

• Both the 1-year and the 3-year rabies vaccine contain essentially the same amount of rabies antigenic material and adjuvant (potency).

• The law recognizes the label on the vial. So, a veterinarian cannot legally substitute a 1-year rabies vaccine for a 3-year and vice versa.

• The law states that the vaccine must be administered by a veterinarian.

• The whole vial must be administered to have a pet considered “vaccinated” by law. The size of the dog – whether a teacup Yorkie or a 180 lb. Newfoundland – does not matter.

• If a dog misses a 3-year rabies vaccination deadline, some states require a 1-year rabies vaccination as the next dose. This is expected to change in the near future based upon recent published data from the KSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Moore, MC, et al. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2015; 246:205–211).

• I strongly recommend using the thimerosal-free (mercury-free) canine rabies vaccine (Merial IMRAB TF-1 or TF-3).    

Rabies Titer Test
• A titer test measures the antibodies in the blood as an indication of the level of immunity an animal has to a particular disease or infectious agent such as rabies virus.

• The purposes for rabies titer tests are:
   o To ensure an animal has sufficient immunity; and,
   o To be able to transport animals to Hawaii or other countries.

• KSU is the only laboratory recognized by the USDA to verify sufficient rabies immunity. (Note: Hemopet/Hemolife Diagnostics sends the required serum sample to KSU to assay the rabies RFFIT endpoint titer, which gives an actual numerical titer, rather than an estimated titer from a rabies screening test. We report the titer results and our interpretation, but, the interpretation does not supersede the law of the United States or other countries.)

Rabies Medical Exemptions
• Rabies medical exemption laws are available in a number of states and are regulated at the state level.

• 18 states currently have medical exemption laws. To find out your state medical exemption laws, please visit States with Medical Exemptions

• RCF also helps to introduce medical exemption legislation; please contact us to help with this worthy endeavor.

• Medical exemption laws vary state by state, but the common language invokes that if a rabies inoculation may significantly compromise an animal’s health, a licensed veterinarian can write a waiver exempting the animal from further rabies inoculations.

SUFFICIENT RABIES IMMUNITY PROVEN BY A TITER TEST DOES NOT QUALIFY FOR A MEDICAL EXEMPTION WAIVER. (I wish it were the case, but it is not. Remember the law is the LAW, and veterinarians risk their license to practice if they fail to comply.)

Rabies Quarantines/Isolation Periods
In many states if a dog is bitten by a wild or other animal, the dog may be quarantined or isolated for a period of time regardless of current rabies vaccination status. This requirement will also be changing based upon the published KSU study cited above. Please note that the presence of rabies can only be accurately determined by examination of the brain tissue of a dead animal; no valid test exists for rabies infection in a live animal.  

Positive Things You Can Do
• Please keep your dog up-to-date on his rabies vaccinations, preferably every three years after the initial 2-dose series, or as required by law in your area.

• Request the thimerosal-free rabies vaccine, listed above.

• Contact your state legislators to help pass a rabies medical exemption bill in your state, if one does not exist. Let Kris Christine of the RCF know and we will be able to provide significant assistance.

• Support the Rabies Challenge Fund Charitable Trust.

Importing and Exporting Animals to the United States
Hawaii Requirements for Importing Cats and Dogs
The Rabies Challenge Fund
Clinical Approaches to Managing Adverse Vaccine Reactions
Mercury Induced Inflammation: Yet another example of ASIA Syndrome
Frequently Asked Questions about Titers and Vaccination Protocol 

W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet / NutriScan
11561 Salinaz Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843

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