Rabies and Animal Control

In these days of contracting budgets for essential services, communities need to insist on more funding for animal control departments. There are many examples of terrible injuries resulting from inadequate animal control. Maulings come to mind first, but there are other inadequacies needing attention, such as the prevention of rabies.

My law practice consists of representing dog bite victims and nobody else. In one of my dog bite cases, a little girl was bitten on the face and her parents became extremely concerned about rabies. They were aware that a dog’s saliva can transmit the disease. By the way, so can the saliva of raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.

Rabies treatment has to start within 48 hours of the time of the bite. Nobody who was treated within 48 hours has ever died from rabies. Few Americans are infected with rabies in any given year. Nevertheless, precautions are required because an untreated case of rabies always ends in death.

Unless there is evidence of rabies, the normal procedure is for animal control to either take the biting dog into custody for 10 days or issue a written order to the dog owners to quarantine the dog at their home for that period of time. During quarantine the dog must not come into contact with other animals and its death must be reported. If it dies, its brain is tested for rabies. Violation of a quarantine order is a crime usually punishable by jail time. Concealing the dog to avoid a quarantine order also results in the same penalty.

If the dog does not die, the victim is presumed to be out of the woods and no treatment for rabies is administered. If it dies or the bite victim has rabies symptoms, however, treatment must commence immediately. Early symptoms of the disease include irritability, headache, fever and sometimes itching or pain at the site of the exposure. If untreated, rabies disease progresses within days to paralysis, spasms of the throat muscles, convulsions, delirium and death. The incubation period varies; it normally is 2 to 8 weeks, but in rare cases symptoms have appeared a year or more after exposure.

In the case involving the little girl, animal control activities were essentially nonexistent, leaving the parents and the child extremely afraid that she might have contracted the disease. When my office talked to the county department of animal control, we were told that they had done nothing because the city where the girl was bitten was performing its own animal control protocols. Upon contacting City Hall, however, we were told that the there was no animal control department; the tasks of animal control were performed by the city’s code enforcement officer. In other words, by the person who oversees things like building permits, abandoned vehicles, and illegally placed signs. A code enforcement officer usually has basic peace officer status, can carry a firearm, sieze property, and make arrests.

Here, the code enforcement officer had little to tell us. We asked whether the dog had been impouded. “No, we went to their house once, but nobody opened the door.”

We asked whether a quarantine order had been issued. “No, they won’t call us.”

We asked whether the dog was licensed. “We don’t know.”

And whether it had been vaccinated against rabies. “We don’t have any records like that.”

When we asked why the code officer did not have any information for us, the officer said, “because the dog owners are not cooperating with us.”

These answers reflect the city’s level of commitment to animal control. It is intolerable and subjects the residents to the risk of rabies as well as being mauled by dogs. The city needs an animal control officer to identify and deal with a broad spectrum of issues involving pets and feral animals alike. We will not get the animal control services we need, however, unless we let our lawmakers know we want them.