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Study stresses importance of rabies vaccinations

Danielle Julien, PhD student at University of Guelph’s OVC, is studying dog bite incidents in southern Ontario rural and urban households, as well as looking at rabies vaccination status.  A resurgence of rabies in southern Ontario has put this devastating zoonotic disease back on the radar.  It also serves as a reminder to all pet owners to keep vaccinations against this deadly disease up to date.

Raccoon-strain rabies surfaced in Hamilton over a year ago after being absent from the province for almost 10 years. Since then more than 300 cases have been reported in raccoons and skunks in southwestern Ontario, and a control and surveillance program has been ongoing ever since.

A timely study by Danielle Julien, a PhD candidate in the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), is investigating dog bite incidents in rural and urban southern Ontario households, and includes rabies vaccination status in its survey.  

In Canada, it’s estimated that more than six million dogs live in households, and that at least 56 per cent of Canadians own at least one dog or cat.

Dog bites are a serious public health issue, particularly when coupled with transmission of diseases such as rabies, says Julien. She graduated with her doctor of veterinary medicine from OVC in 2008 and spent some time in companion animal veterinary practice before completing her master of public health at U of G. She began her PhD studies in 2014.

The resurgence of the rabies virus in Ontario underscores why it is so important to have pets vaccinated, says Prof. Jan Sargeant, director of U of G’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses and epidemiologist in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine.

“There still are wildlife cases,” says Sargeant “You need to make sure for your own protection and your animal’s protection to vaccinate. Don’t get complacent.” Pets should be vaccinated every one to three years, depending on the vaccine used, to ensure they are protected from the rabies virus.

Julien surveyed more than 2,000 individuals – 1,002 in rural areas and 1,004 in urban settings – over a 12-month period in 2013 and 2014. She looked at how many dogs each household owned, how many family members had experienced a dog bite and how many of these dogs had up-to-date rabies vaccinations.

Overall, almost 49 per cent of the households surveyed owned at least one dog (46 per cent of urban households and 51 per cent of rural households). About 17 per cent of urban households and 8.4 per cent of rural households reported a dog bite incident.

While Julien is just beginning to sort through all the data, she has an overall picture of the average biting dog in urban and rural households from surveys received – the average age was 4.2 years old, nearly 40 per cent were owned by the household, almost 60 per cent were male, 65 per cent had rabies vaccinations, and in 61 per cent of incidents, bites were provoked through some sort of intentional contact with the dog.

She also looked at owners’ perceptions of rabies risk for household members and dogs of various ages. “So if you have a puppy, how concerned are you about rabies in that dog? If you have a senior dog how concerned are you?” Julien also looked at owners’ concerns related to contact with wildlife.

Understanding these relationships is important when planning control and prevention strategies for zoonoses(diseases transmitted from animals to people), adds Julien.

In addition to questions about rabies and vaccination rates, the survey asked where owners source their dogs, the type of health certificates they had if an animal came from outside the province or outside Canada, as well as the respondent’s knowledge of zoonoses.

Julien’s hope is the study will lead to targeted public health dog bite prevention and control strategies specific to urban and rural communities.

With a strong One Health approach to her studies, Julien looks forward to future work in this area. “Evidence-based science is really important when you are presenting results to the public. I particularly like presenting information to the public in a form they can understand.”