For the first time in 45 years, a dog in El Paso County tested positive for rabies, county public health officials announced Thursday.
The dog, which lived with its owner in the Monument area, contracted the fatal virus in early March and was euthanized, county health officials said. The dog’s owner and other people exposed to the pet are being given preventative vaccinations.
The case highlights concerns by public health officials that pet owners are illegally vaccinating their animals by unlicensed veterinarians, or even by themselves.
By law, licensed veterinarians must vaccinate all domestic animals for the deadly virus, which is usually fatal once symptoms begin to show.
Doing so ensures that each pet is given the proper type of vaccine, the right dose, and that the vaccine is stored at the right temperature and handled correctly, the health department said in a release. Licensed veterinarians also know how frequently animals should receive booster shots, as well as how best to administer the vaccine.
In this case, county health officials said they could not confirm where the dog’s vaccine came from, or who administered it. The dog’s owners “thought they were doing their due diligence,” and contrary to earlier reports by the health department, the dog’s owner did not self-administer the vaccine.
Dr. Robin Johnson, the county’s medical director, urged residents to make sure anyone performing vaccinations is licensed, and avoid such things as unlicensed drop-in vaccination fairs or mail-order vaccines.
“I think it’s tempting, because we’re looking for convenience and lower cost,” Johnson said. “But in the case of vaccinations, it’s worth getting it through the veterinarian assuring it’s been handled correctly.”
The first citation for having an unvaccinated or improperly vaccinated dog is $45, with fines rising with each subsequent violation, said Gretchen Pressley, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.
In the case of the rabid dog, its owner had to pay fees associated with testing the dog for rabies, local health and animal officials said.
The case comes after a rabies outbreak ravaged the local skunk population in 2017 and 2018. In those years, scores of skunks died and tested positive for the virus.
Cases of rabies among domestic animals, however, are exceedingly rare.
The most recent cases were in 2015. A cat was euthanized as a precaution after finding a rabid bat. Earlier that year, a kitten tested positive for the virus, the county’s first case of rabies in a domesticated cat since 1966.
In the kitten’s case, about 20 people underwent preventative shots to guard against the disease, and three other animals — two dogs and a cat — were euthanized as a precaution.
So far this year, three animals have tested positive for the virus: a skunk, a fox and the dog.
The virus — which causes fatal brain swelling — is spread primarily from the bite of an infected animal, or when infected saliva gets into open wounds or the eyes, nose or mouth, the health department said.
Haley Zachary, a communicable disease epidemiologist for the county, said it’s “fairly common” for pet owners not to seek licensed veterinarians for vaccinations. Instead, people often seek cheaper vaccinations on the internet or in local stores.
A recent testing program used by county health officials through Kansas State University, however, found that pets who received such vaccinations did not have a robust immunity to rabies, Zachary said.
“The vaccine might seem like a bigger cost up front when administered by a licensed veterinarian, but it can save a lot of heartache, a lot of pain and a lot of money on the back end,” she said.