Rabies outbreaks once prevalent in Wellesley

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on May 11, 2015.

Typical notice published in Townsman following a rabies outbreak  (Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

Typical notice published in Townsman following a rabies outbreak
(Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

It’s a part of dog ownership. Every three years, Fido gets a rabies shot at the vet. And in turn, you receive a metal tag that must then be attached to his collar.

Few people truly understand how important such a routine action is to everyday life. Rabies was — and still is in many parts of the world — one of the most deadly and terrifying viruses. It’s practically 100% fatal once its symptoms appear: only two people who failed to receive a post-exposure prophylaxis have ever survived.

Fortunately, the United States has been able to eradicate the disease from the pet and human populations, largely because of laws that require dog and cat owners to vaccinate their canine and feline friends against rabies and provide proof of such inoculations to their local municipal governments. (In Massachusetts, that law was passed in 1969.)

It wasn’t always like this. Up until the 1930s, most towns in Massachusetts commonly experienced outbreaks of rabies. The only way to stop them was to quarantine and restrain all domestic animals for a period of a few months until the outbreaks subsided. At a time when few dogs and cats were coddled and pampered as they are today, these quarantine orders were outrageously inconvenient for pets and owners alike.

The reason the rabies virus was so prevalent is the ease with which it is transmitted between mammals. The smallest of bites from an infected animal can transmit the virus. But it then takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for symptoms to appear as the virus travels from the bite wound through the nervous system to the brain. Determining how and when the virus was contracted is therefore difficult.

(According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms of rabies first resemble the flu, including fever and weakness, as well as a tingling sensation at the site of the source of infection. Within days, however, agitation, anxiety, and general cerebral dysfunction develop. Once this stage is reached, death is imminent.)

Up until the late 19th Century, if exposed to rabies, you died. It was that simple. There was no cure at all. In 1885, however, Louis Pasteur — the same man who developed the technique of milk pasteurization — discovered a cure for rabies. By exposing those infected to a series of small doses of the rabies virus over the course of a few weeks, the immune system can produce enough antibodies to combat the disease. Known as the Pasteur treatment, this was the standard method for treating rabies exposures for decades.

Despite this cure, the problems associated with rabies did not disappear. In fact, it only got worse in most suburban communities during the 1920s and early 1930s as more families with pets moved there. Given the frequency with which domesticated dogs ran wild at the time — and thus the increased chance they came into contact with rabid wildlife — it was often the case that a rabid dog would enter into crowded shopping districts or school grounds and cause a serious commotion.

Cries of “Mad dog!” were common in Wellesley. The outcome of these occurrences were all the same: either the dog would escape or a police officer, if he arrived on the scene quickly enough, would — usually in front of large crowds — put the dog out of its misery with a few shots from his pistol. The Inspector of Animals would then collect the dog’s carcass and send its head to a testing site (most commonly a laboratory at Harvard University) in order to determine if the animal had rabies.

The unfortunate reality, however, was that many of these “rabid” dogs weren’t actually infected with rabies. Most of them were just scared or perhaps in pain resulting from some unrelated illness. Furthermore, the majority of these incidents occurred in the warmer months, during the so-called “dog days” of summer. Canines, understandably, get pretty grouchy in the heat. So is it any surprise that their behavior easily becomes abnormal?

Despite this “shoot first and ask questions later” approach, the Town of Wellesley was actually on the forefront of the battle against rabies. In the early 1900s, owners were strongly encouraged to license their dogs in order to keep the canine population under watch. And starting in 1927, Wellesley became one of the first communities to offer rabies vaccinations for dogs. Sadly, few residents took their pets to these clinics, resulting in a series of rabies outbreaks here during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

All this would end in 1935, when the state passed a new law that gave more incentive for owners to register and inoculate their dogs. If any dog was found without a brass tag inscribed with the owner’s name and a license number on its collar, the dog officer — a new position created to relieve the police department of the work associated with rabid animals — would hold the dog, and if the owner did not claim the pooch within six days, the officer could sell or euthanize it.

This draconian law was quite successful in encouraging owners to vaccinate their dogs. As a result, there were no reported human cases of rabies in Massachusetts from 1935 until 2012, when a 63-year-old man in Barnstable died after becoming infected with the virus after getting bitten by a bat.

It’s a different story elsewhere in the world. Each year, 55,000 people die of rabies — primarily in Africa and Asia — almost all of them a result of rabid dog bites.

So it isn’t like rabies is any less dangerous than it was a century ago. It’s just that collectively we’ve been able to rid the virus from our pet population by making sure that the Fidos and Sadies of Wellesley always get their rabies shots.