Ask most people what pets need rabies immunization and the first answer will be “dogs.” Actually, any domesticated pet that lives outside is at risk of the disease, as four people in rural north Georgia recently discovered. A pet llama there contracted rabies from an unknown source. It spit on a caretaker and exposed a veterinarian and two other people to the virus.
The llama had never been vaccinated. Back in December, the owner called a veterinarian after the llama began behaving oddly, acting aggressively, stumbling, biting at itself and biting at people, and spitting on the caretaker. What the owners and vet didn’t know was the animal was actively shedding the rabies virus at the time, meaning it could be easily transmitted. The vet put the animal down and sent samples to a state laboratory. Tests confirmed the llama was rabid.
The caretaker immediately received post-exposure rabies treatment. Health officials determined that two others received only limited exposure and would not need monitoring or treatment. The fourth is still being evaluated. Rabies in humans is almost always fatal unless caught before symptoms start. It’s an acute viral disease that affects the entire central nervous system, with symptoms appearing in one to four days. The virus attacks the brain, causing severe damage, muscle spasms, hallucinations and combativeness. Death is all but certain. People who are exposed to the virus receive a series of injections of antirabies antiserum and antirabies vaccine to stop the disease from developing.
Pet owners have an obligation to ensure that their animals do not contract a dangerous illness that can be spread to humans through a bite or other contact. While rabies treatments are far less painful and much less of an ordeal than in the past, they can produce side-effects and complications. Georgia authorities did not bring any charges against the owner of the llama.
Source: North Georgia Health District, “Four people exposed to rabid llama in Morganton,” Jan. 9, 2013