From our wire services

Dr. Richard Ford, professor of Medicine at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine-Raleigh, says rabies is perhaps the oldest documented infectious disease in history - referred to in the Bible, as well as old movies.

"Rabies is a viral infection that has a tremendous affinity to attack the nervous system of mammals," Ford says. While all mammals can get the disease, not all can transmit the virus to others, however. While people who get rabies don't turn into werewolves, what does happen to them isn't pretty; rabies is prolonged, painful and fatal.

Ford points out that annually there are about 60,000 cases of rabies worldwide - that means 60,000 people die as a result, and most often from dog bites. In America, in recent years, usually only one person per year succumbs to rabies, occurring because of an interaction with rabid wildlife.

China is one of many nations where rabies is transmitted most often by dogs. The "solution" has been to attempt to round up and kill as many dogs as possible. This approach is dubious on many levels. For starters, it simply hasn't worked.

In America, the approach has been to vaccinate dogs and cats.

"The truth is that going back to the early 1950s and before that, we did have many more cases of rabies in the U.S.," Ford says. "Rabies was a problem. However, by vaccinating large numbers of dogs and cats, we've made an enormous difference."

While the U.S. doesn't have to grapple with the rabies-related issues of other nations, it's not as if the disease has been eradicated here.

"Just because we don't hear about rabies, doesn't mean it's not in the environment," says Dr. Lynn White-Shim, assistant director, Scientific Activities Division, at the American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, Ill.

In fact, the threat of rabies is more apparent today than it's been for many years. Due to suburban sprawl and increasing numbers of wild animals in urban areas, the potential for human or companion-animal exposure to rabies may be on the rise. "This is why we need to be vigilant," White-Shim adds.

Ford says, "If you see a raccoon or skunk on the golf course watching your slice, and not running off, that abnormal behavior is a red flag. We need to be leery of these animals. Today, it's these sorts of animals that transmit rabies to people in the U.S."

If we don't interact with rabid wildlife, we're safe, as long as our pets are vaccinated. There are more close calls than you might imagine due to unprotected pets. Just a few years ago, a young girl found a kitten, then took the animal to show-and-tell at her school. That kitten soon became ill and died of rabies.

Not only were the child's family members exposed to the disease, but so were her classmates and teacher. While the kitten did not bite anyone, some people may have been scratched. Since rabies is fatal, public health officials decided to take no chances. All family members, fellow students and the teacher were required to submit to a series of preventative shots.

"It's an expensive proposition, and creates a lot of emotional baggage," Ford says.

Fortunately, most U.S. owners vaccinate their dogs for rabies, and the vaccines "are both safe and effective," says Ford. Still, many cat owners don't see a need to vaccinate their pets. As a result, rabies has become more prevalent in cats than dogs in the U.S.

Ford says 19 states have no vaccination requirement for cats. As an author of vaccine guidelines (including the upcoming American Animal Hospital Association guidelines, expected to be released later this year), he recommends a rabies vaccine for cats as well as dogs.

"Today, there are several rabies vaccine choices," White-Shim says. "Work with your veterinarian to choose which choice is best for you pets."