By Staff Sgt. Joy Pariante, 13th Public Affairs DetachmentMarch 13, 2009
In Iraq, most people are longing for something to remind them of home and combat the daily downer of being so far away from everything and everyone you care about. Some servicemembers and civilians have taken to "adopting" stray animals here for entertainment and companionship. While keeping a cute puppy or kitten as a pet downrange might brighten your spirits, it can also cost you your life. General Order 1 prohibits "adopting as pets or mascots, caring for, or feeding any type of domestic or wild animal." The purpose behind this, according to the theater veterinary medical consultant, is to protect U.S. personnel from the host of diseases and parasites carried by the mammal population in Iraq; including rabies. Despite the threat of fatal disease, there are still servicemembers and civilians caring for animals in their housing units and putting themselves at risk of infection daily. This, according to 44th Medical Command, is a practice that needs to stop immediately. Rabies is a disease that affects the central nervous system and damages the brain tissue of the infected human or animal, said Lt. Cdr. Christopher Clagett, preventative medicine consultant for the Iraq theater of operations, Task Force 44th Medical Command. "It's a completely asymptomatic infection until it's too late," Clagett explained. Once symptoms start to show, the disease is 99 percent fatal. In the rare case someone recovers from full blown rabies infection, there is severe, permanent neurological damage. "Because the consequences of rabies are so high, those are really not dice we want to roll," he said. Current numbers of animals carrying rabies in Iraq are variable and often inconclusive, Clagett said. However, because of the fatal results of the disease and its known presence in the animal population here, prevention is necessary. "It [risk of infection] all depends on what the individual does," Clagett explained. "If they're careful no to interact with the animals, it's not a problem." Avoiding interaction with animals here is key because of the numerous ways rabies can be transmitted amongst warm-blooded animals, said Col. Perry R. Chumley, theater veterinary medical consultant, TF 44th MEDCOM. The disease is present in the saliva of infected animals and can be spread through bites, scratches or even from the animal licking mucous membranes, such as in the eyes and nose. In the event of animal contact, medical care should be sought immediately so treatment to combat the disease can begin. Rabies is also dangerous because of the delayed onset of recognizable symptoms. Until the infection has taken root in the central nervous system, there is nearly no way to tell if an animal is infected, Chumley said. Animals can look perfectly normal, but be carrying the virus and, therefore, dangerous, Clagett explained. Later symptoms of infection in animals include behavior changes, including increased emotional reaction to normal stimulus and final stage symptoms include changes in their ability to control movement, Clagett explained. One of the well-known signs of rabies is foaming at the mouth, which, Clagett explained is caused by an inability to coordinate movement of the throat muscles used in swallowing. Personnel in Iraq might think their force protection pets, mascots or personal companions look alright when they can, in fact, be carrying the lethal disease. Puppies as young as 6-weeks old have tested positive for rabies and so have dogs who have been serving on forward operating bases as mascots for years. Some FOB inhabitants have began bringing dogs into their homes at night and letting them roam during the day, Clagett said. They've even given them name tags and collars. This set up is also extremely dangerous because of your continuous contact with the animal and its potential to encounter infected animals during its daily roaming. To help limit the chance of rabies exposure, the Government of Iraq has started a program aimed at controlling the wild dog population and the spread of animal-borne diseases in Iraq, Chumley said. On-post, vector control traps all stray or wild animals, which are later humanely euthanized and tested for rabies to aid in research on the prevalence of the disease in country. In trapping and euthanizing potentially diseased animals, incidences such as joggers being bitten on Camp Victory by rabid stray dogs, can be avoided. Servicemembers and civilians, whether concerned with infection or not, need to follow General Order 1 and cease contact with feral dogs and cats while on base or on patrol outside the wire, Chumley said. "There's a reason why this is a General Order. It's very wise because you don't want service people mixing with the stray animal population here because of the high risk of disease." "For years and years as American servicemembers head overseas they've had countless encounters with indigenous animal populations. It's not unusual to see an image of a Soldier picking up a pup, but you don't know what that animal is carrying," Chumley stressed. Servicemembers need to remember that these aren't like pets at home because they're lacking in vaccinations and other important veterinary care. The best way to stay safe from rabies is to stay away from stray and feral animals.