As of New Year's Day, all dogs, cats and ferrets in Washington must be vaccinated for rabies.
That's right — ferrets, too.
"They're pets. They could be exposed like dogs and cats. Some of them do go outdoors on leashes. So it's not totally beyond the realm of possibility for them to be exposed," Dr. Ron Wohrle, the state's Public Health Veterinarian, said Thursday.
The state Board of Health adopted the new rule in accordance with national rabies control guidelines. Now part of the Washington Administrative Code, the rule went into effect Sunday. There is no enforcement clause at the state level to accompany it, however, Wohrle said.
"There's no one going out there policing this," he said. "It's to get people's attention, which is good. We want to have more compliance of vaccination to protect pets, their owners and the public at large from exposures."
Ferrets were included in the new rule because a licensed rabies vaccine is available for them, while there isn't such a vaccine for, say, guinea pigs, Wohrle said.
Rabies vaccines cost roughly $19 for dogs, $18 to $28 for cats, and $17 to $22 for ferrets, according to a poll of a few veterinarians in the Longview-Kelso area.
The most recent human cases of rabies in Washington occurred in 1995 and 1997. The last domestic animal in Washington to test positive for rabies was a cat in 2002, according to the state Department of Health.
Many jurisdictions, including Cowlitz County and its cities, require rabies shots for dogs as part of their licensing programs.
Thursday, Longview City Manager Bob Gregory said he didn't foresee Longview adopting an ordinance that requires proof of rabies vaccinations for cats and ferrets as well.
"From an enforcement standpoint, how would you regulate it? You'd have to knock on their door and inventory their cats and ferrets," Gregory said.
The city pays the Humane Society to enforce dog-licensing laws, and if cats and ferrets were added to the mix, the city would have to cut expenses elsewhere to pay for the extra enforcement, he said.
"Unless it's an epidemic of rabies in the community or that type of thing, I think it's going to have to be a low priority," Gregory said.
In Washington, bats are the primary source of rabies, and contact with an infected bat could be life-threatening without a rabies shot afterward, according to the state Department of Health. Pets are exposed to rabies through bat encounters, and their owners can be exposed when they take the bats away from their pets. Sometimes cats, which are twice as likely as dogs to catch rabies, drag bats into houses.
"We hear people say, ‘Well, gee, my cats never go outside.' But again, bats do come inside even in the finest homes," Wohrle said, recalling the time the governor's mansion was infested with bats.
Longview resident Joanne Tweit, who takes her ferret on walks at Lake Sacajawea on a leash, said the ferret vaccination requirement is a good idea in general. However, she said, "it's a little bit overboard" to make it a state rule, she said Friday.
"It sounds like the medical vaccination companies want somebody to spend more money," said Tweit, 47, who used to care for up to 10 ferrets at a time in the decade she ran a ferret rescue. Most ferrets don't leave the house, she said.
"I think that a rabies vaccination for a ferret should be up to each individual owner," she said Friday. "There's other diseases passed among animals. Why isn't feline leukemia (vaccination) required?"
According to www.ferretrescue.com, since 1958, when the Center For Disease Control began reporting rabies statistics, only 14 ferrets have tested positive for rabies. Some of those cases were attributed to being given the wrong rabies vaccine. By contrast, between 1980 and 1992, there were 2,537 reported cases of rabid cats and 1,996 reported cases of rabid dogs, the website said.