It is illegal to sell flesh-eating animals other than dogs, cats and ferrets in South Carolina.
But unlike many other states, South Carolina has not banned the owning of wild species. So some people do continue to keep wild animals as pets. Others keep wild/domestic hybrids, which are animals created through the human-forced crossbreeding of a dog or cat with a wild species. And a third group keeps wild animals confined on their property not as pets but for other purposes.
No Protection from Rabies
Exotic pets such as raccoons, foxes, skunks, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, wolf dogs, weasels, civet cats, spotted skunks, lynx, and bears most definitely can become infected and carry rabies.
Unfortunately, there are no approved rabies vaccines for exotic pets. Also, no one knows how long these animals can carry the rabies virus within them before exhibiting symptoms.
What this means is that if there is ever a chance that an exotic pet (including wild/domestic hybrids) may have been exposed to rabies, DHEC public health officials do not have the option of imposing quarantine so that the animal can be observed for six months. Doing so would not rule out the presence of rabies in an exotic pet.
Instead, in cases of possible rabies exposure, euthanasia of the exotic pet, followed by testing of the animal's brain for rabies, is usually the only failsafe option available.
Farm Animals and Rabies
Occasionally, rabid wild animals will enter barns, paddocks, and grazing fields and bite or scratch farm animals. Cows are exposed to and infected with rabies more frequently than other types of livestock, although horses, sheep, pigs and goats can also catch the virus.
Rabies Vaccines for Farm Animals
South Carolina does not require owners of agricultural animals to vaccinate for rabies, although rabies vaccines for cows, horses and sheep have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, we strongly recommend vaccinating:
- Horses, cattle and sheep that have frequent contact with humans
- Livestock that are particularly valuable
- Animals used for raw milk or raw milk product production.
In addition, horses must be vaccinated for rabies before being transported out-of-state.
Symptoms of Rabies in Farm Animals
Look for unusual behavior:
- Cows typically develop a hoarse bellow. They may drool and swallow abnormally, as though they have something caught in their throats. Some only show depression and weakness, or partial paralysis, of the hindquarters. Hours or days later, the animal will go down, develop convulsive seizures, and die.
- Horses tend to contract the paralytic form of the disease and may initially show abnormal postures with wobbliness of the hindquarters, frequent whinnying, unexplained aggressiveness (with kicking and biting), and signs of colic. They may also show lameness in one leg, followed by an inability to rise the next day.
- Sheep have symptoms similar to cattle, and sometimes vigorously pull their wool. Typically, rabies is seen in more than one sheep in a flock because the animals stay close together and several can be easily bitten at one time.
- Goats with rabies are often aggressive and bleat continuously.
- Pigs with rabies tend to act excited and uncoordinated. Some animals will chew rapidly, salivate, and convulse. Paralysis eventually occurs and death follows in 12 to 48 hours.
If an Animal is Exposed to Rabies
If a farm animal is exposed to a rabid animal, the owner must contact their local public health department immediately.
A DHEC public health expert will talk to the owner and investigate the incident. They will decide whether the animal will need to be placed under observation and quarantined or euthanized so that its head can be tested for the rabies virus.
In many cases, if the animal has been vaccinated, it will need to be re-vaccinated immediately and placed under observation for 45 (or more) days.
If the animal exposed to rabies has not been vaccinated, chances are it will need to be euthanized immediately or at very least, kept under close observation apart from other animals at the owner's expense for 6 months. The DHEC public health investigator will decide which option is wisest given the circumstances.
In some cases, our investigator may be able to allow a farmer to quarantine the animal on his or her property, apart from other animals and people. But the farmer must notify the Public Health Veterinarian at DHEC immediately of any signs of illness in the animal. If rabies symptoms develop during the observation period, the animal will have to be euthanized and the head shipped for testing.
Handling Tissue from Rabies-Exposed Animals Poses Risks
Handling tissues from animals that may have come in contact with rabies can potentially expose a farm worker or meat processing employee to rabies. The risk depends in part on the site(s) of exposure, amount of virus present, severity of wounds, and whether all the rabies-contaminated tissue is removed before the carcass is handled. The owner should notify anyone who will be handling the animal's body of the possibility of rabies exposure and the need to use infection barriers such as face masks, goggles, double gloves and fluid-resistant clothing or gowns.
Safety of Meat and Milk from Rabies-Exposed Animals
Meat Could Transmit Virus
In animals known to be infected, the rabies virus may be widely distributed in the animal's tissues. Meat and tissue from a known rabid animal should never be used as food for humans or animals.
Eating meat from animals that were exposed to rabies but have not yet shown signs of the disease can also be risky. The level of risk depends in part on where the bite or scratch or wound is located on the animal's body and the severity of those wounds, how much of the rabies virus is present, and whether all contaminated tissue is removed from the animal's body before the carcass is processed.
Federal guidelines for meat inspectors require that any animal known to have been exposed to rabies within 8 months be rejected for slaughter. The owner must notify USDA Food and Inspection Service (FSIS) meat inspectors if an animal was exposed to rabies - before the animal is slaughtered.
Pasteurization of Milk Inactivates Rabies Virus
Heat treatment of milk (a process called pasteurization), inactivates the rabies virus, so drinking pasteurized milk does not expose a person to rabies.
However, raw milk and raw milk products are not heat-treated before consumption, so those products could conceivably carry a risk of rabies transmission from an infected animal. We recommend that animals used for production of raw milk be vaccinated for rabies.
Restrict Entire Herd?
Multiple rabid animals in a herd or herbivore-to-herbivore transmission is uncommon, therefore, restricting the rest of the herd if a single animal has been exposed to or infected by rabies is usually not necessary.