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Only half of Maine's pets get vaccinated
STATE — Only about half of Maine's cats and dogs are vaccinated for rabies.
This means that the number of cats and dogs licensed in the state of Maine is also at an alarmingly low rate.
Retired State Veterinarian Donald Hoenig reported in early July that the state's pet vaccination rate is far too low and that he'd at least like to see it in the 75-80-percent range.
He said of the approximately 285,000 dogs in Maine, only about 160,000 are licensed.
One reason for the low rate – though not the only reason – is that licensing a dog requires that the animal have an up-to-date rabies vaccine.
According to William Bell, executive director of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, in some cases, people will vaccinate their pets but then "see no reason to go to the town office and pay for a licence."
Part of it is the inconvenience of going to the town office. The other part is people feel like they don't have to license a dog to own one – especially if they are they are keeping its vaccinations up to date and taking care of it, said Bell.
But Bell said even though the low number of licensed animals is not directly influenced by the number of pet vaccinations, the vaccination rate – especially for rabies – is still a significant concern.
"It's always a problem," he said. "There are always people who own pets who take very little responsibility for them."
While the cost and side affects of vaccines may be factors, Bell suspects that the low number is because many people don't realize how crucial vaccinations are.
He said they don't understand that if their pet doesn't get vaccinated, there is a chance that it could have rabies and that it may have to be euthanized to prevent the disease from spreading.
Dr. Matthew Holden, owner of the Oxford Hills Veterinary Hospital in South Paris, said that euthanasia is also required for rabies testing.
"If we are suspicious of rabies and there is no vaccination history and there has been exposure to people of any kind – especially kids – the only way you can test the animal to see if it does have rabies is to euthanize it, so the brain can be tested," he explained.
And while he is not sure how many pets in Oxford Hills are not getting their rabies vaccinations, he nevertheless stressed the importance of it.
"The state of Maine requires rabies vaccinations for cats and dogs," he said.
"Secondly, most veterinarians try very hard to not make those vaccinations too expensive," he said. "Thirdly, if there is a problem with them not being vaccinated, part of it could be that the state requires us [veterinarians] to turn in vaccination reports to make sure dogs get licensed."
Holden, however, said he did not agree with the requirement. "I'm not a fan of that – I think it's an invasion of privacy – yours [the pet owner] and mine," he said.
"But, it's part of the law," he said, "and there are certainly some people who don't like to be forced into doing things like that."
In February, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of rabies cases had spiked because of the mild winter.
Because of the increase, MECDC has been advising pet owners to keep their pets' rabies vaccinations up to date.
"Rabies control consists of several different approaches," said State Epidemiologist Stephen Sears.
"The first and one of the most important [approaches] is for everybody to keep their animals vaccinated and that includes both their dogs and their cats," he said.
Another approach, is to "let wild animals be wild," he said. "Stay away from them – and if they get exposed – bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal – then they [the pet owner] need to take it seriously."
Sears said that while it's important for pet owners to make sure all their pets' vaccinations are up to date, "rabies [vaccinations] are the ones that are most important [for] keeping the pets safe and keeping down the number of potential exposures."
According to Holden, if pets aren't vaccinated and they are exposed to wild animals, the rabies virus can be transmitted to the pet and be passed on to the owner if not detected early enough.
"Rabies is a deadly disease and you don't recover from it if you get it," said Holden.
For the most part, though, Holden said that from his perspective, the responsible pet owners keep their pets' vaccinations up to date. "But are there animals out there that are not vaccinated? Absolutely," he said.
Elizabeth McEvoy, assistant state veterinarian, said that, if the rabies vaccination is administered properly, rabies is definitely a preventable disease.
"People need to be aware that treatment and prevention steps need to be taken if they get exposed and they are quite significant and are very expensive," she said.
Sears pointed out that, one concern he has is how to effectively count the number of rabies vaccinations, and one of the only ways to do that is by knowing the true number of pets that are licensed.
McEvoy believes more people would get their pets vaccinated if it was cheaper. She said she has participated in rabies clinics and learned that "people come out of the woodwork for rabies clinics when they can get a vaccine at a lesser cost."
"It's the economy and it's education," said McEvoy on improving Maine's low vaccination rate, "and both things we need to do better."