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A total of 56 cases of rabies were reported this year, the vast majority in the north of the country. In each of the past three years, there were nine to 12 cases of the disease. "It's a real plague," said Safed municipal veterinarian Dr. Roi Davidson. "Rabies has never been found in Safed - and this year we had five cases."

It's not just the increase in the number of reported rabies cases that has human and animal health officials concerned. This year, in what is seen as a worrying trend, most cases were discovered in dogs, many of them house pets. "This year's rabies has gone from being a disease of wild animals to being an urban disease," Davidson said. "This is an extreme and discouraging development; it means rabies in dogs that people raise and love."

Unless caught and treated before the appearance of symptoms, death is inevitable after infection with the rabies virus. All mammals are susceptible to rabies. Contagion is via saliva, usually through bites. The disease can be prevented in animals by immunization. Humans who are exposed to the virus can avoid contracting rabies if they are treated with the vaccine before symptoms appear. In 1997, three people in Israel died of rabies - the last time the disease was fatal to humans in the country.

Davidson attributes the resurgence of rabies among dogs kept as pets to "negligible" awareness of the disease. "Since realizing that the disease has reached us, 300 dog owners suddenly came to vaccinate" dogs that had not been immunized previously. "People don't understand that you can die from rabies, they don't understand the duty of vaccination, the danger, the damage," he said.

In recent months, several communities in the north have been declared infected with rabies, and all non-vaccinated pets confiscated and put to sleep. "It's very painful," veterinarian Dr. Yifat Shemesh of Kibbutz Mizra said. "The animals pay the price for their owners' negligence. Cats need to be vaccinated, too, but because it's not legally mandatory, people don't take it seriously."

A joint Agriculture Ministry and Nature and Parks Authority oral vaccination program for foxes and jackals has nearly wiped out rabies in these populations.

Rabies vaccinations were given to 70 donkeys rescued from abusive situations that have been rehoused by inspectors from the ministries of agriculture and of environmental protection on Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley. The animals have found meaningful employment, eating grasses alongside the kibbutz fish ponds and eliminating the need to spray toxic herbicides.