Luckily for cows and horses, veterinarians have approved rabies vaccinations for them.
Q: Our farm dogs and cats get rabies vaccinations every year, but what about our milk cow and horses—can they get rabies and should they get shots, too?
A: All mammals, including cattle, horses and even humans, can get rabies. Your livestock can die from rabies, and if you humans have been exposed to the disease, you have to undergo a lot of treatment. Luckily, there are some real smart vets out there who have approved vaccines for some livestock species, such as cattle, horses and sheep. It’s too bad there are no approved vaccines for other animals, such pigs, llamas, alpacas and us goats. Vaccinated animals should have an up-to-date booster shot. Ask your vet about the best prevention for your animals. It’s important!
Rabies is an icky viral disease that attacks the nervous system and slowly causes our brains to become inflamed. That’s nothing to joke about! Animals (and people) get rabies when they touch saliva from an infected animal. That doesn't just mean getting bitten—the virus can weasel its way into your body through scratches or open wounds on the skin or through mucous membranes in the eyes and mouth. Horses’ and livestock’s curiosity often get them in trouble— they’re usually exposed to rabies when they investigate the strange behavior of a rabid animal, generally a dog, cat, bat, skunk, raccoon or fox, by touching or prodding it with their noses.
There are two forms of rabies: furious and dumb (aka paralytic). Livestock in the furious stage of rabies become nervous and aggressive. (It can be scary!) Sometimes they attack other animals and people, and they might foam at the mouth. Animals in the dumb stage of rabies become depressed and weak, which is especially dangerous because you might not realize they’re sick and put yourself at risk when you hang out with them.
Rabies symptoms look different in different animals, so it can be difficult to know if your animal pals are sick. There are some things you can look out for, though. Cattle may drool and swallow in an unusual manner and often develop a hoarse bellow. Sheep show similar symptoms to cattle and sometimes yank out their own wool. Horses may become weak in the hindquarters and have colic-like symptoms; they whinny a lot and sometimes kick and bite. Rabid goats will bleat continuously. Eventually livestock will become paralyzed and die.
Any time one of your livestock acts out of the ordinary and you can’t explain why, put it in the barn or a pasture area by itself and call your vet right away. If it’s diagnosed with rabies, check your state’s guidelines for how to handle rabid animals. Throw away any products, such as milk, from that animal so you don’t become infected, too.
The best ways to keep rabies off your farm altogether is to have your animals vaccinated and to discourage any animal visitors that might carry rabies. If you see a suspicious animal, like a stray dog, that's acting strangely or a nocturnal animal, like a skunk, out and about during daylight hours, immediately call your local animal-control agency to investigate.
To keep yourself safe, stay away from any animal you think might have rabies, even if it's your own pet or livestock friend. If you or your animals are bitten, put on rubber or latex gloves and immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Then apply rubbing alcohol or water and iodine. Most importantly, get to your doctor or veterinarian as soon as you can! If the animal you came in contact with turns out to be rabid, you can get an injection of human rabies immune globulin and a course of vaccinations.
About the Author: Ozark Jewels General Martok, who describes himself as "a really studly Nubian buck," lives with his family and friends on a small farm in the Arkansas Ozarks. Read his blog, “Mondays with Martok,” for a peek at their daily animal activities.
Have an animal-related question? Send it to Martok at firstname.lastname@example.org, and include “Ask Martok” in the subject.