If you're like most pet owners, you probably take your dog into the veterinarian every year for a rabies vaccination but don't really think much about the disease otherwise. This frightening illness is fatal and incurable, but luckily, it is fairly rare in domesticated dogs in most of the world.
However, rabies does still pose a risk for dogs and their owners. It is therefore important to understand the disease and how to prevent it. Rabies in dogs may be rare today, but that's only because of education and routine preventative measures.
Rabies is the name of a disease caused by a virus in the Lyssavirus genus. This virus typically first takes up residence in the muscles, where it begins to replicate. From there, it spreads into the nervous system, which is its preferred environment. It causes significant damage to the infected animal's nervous system, which will eventually kill the animal. Most viruses can only infect a limited number of species, but rabies is somewhat unusual because it can survive in any mammal, including humans.
The rabies virus is carried in the blood, saliva, and nerve tissue of infected animals, and it is most commonly transmitted through exposure to saliva. This usually happens when an infected animal bites a healthy one. Saliva gets into the bite wound, and from there, it travels into the healthy tissues of the person or animal. There is a small chance of infection from just being exposed to the saliva without a bite, but this is rare and usually requires a scratch or other injury to give the virus a way through the skin.
Most people are familiar with media depictions of aggressive, rabid animals, but there are actually two types of rabies. Furious rabies causes the animal to become aggressive and try to attack for no reason, while paralytic rabies causes the dog to become confused and lethargic. Some dogs may show symptoms of both types. Other common symptoms include fever, seizures, an inability to swallow, weakness and loss of coordination, drooling and excessive salivation, and hydrophobia, or a fear of water. In most cases, the earliest symptom is a significant change in the dog's personality, which may last for two to three days before other symptoms appear.
Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for rabies once the animal begins to show symptoms. Rabid animals are euthanized humanely as soon as possible to prevent them from suffering and to help prevent the risk of them spreading the disease to other animals or people. However, if a dog may have been exposed to rabies but is not showing symptoms yet, a booster vaccination may help prevent the virus from infecting the animal.
The best way to ensure your dogs don't get rabies is to keep their vaccinations up to date. Rabies vaccines are typically effective for several years, but many places have laws requiring dogs to be re-vaccinated every year. The exact amount of time a vaccine is effective for depends on the type, so be sure to follow your veterinarian's recommendations even if you aren't legally required to give your dog an annual booster.
The number of rabies cases depends on the location. In the United States, rabies is very rare in domesticated animals, and only about two people get it each year. It is significantly more common in wild animals such as bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. In Asia, Africa and South America, however, rabies is very common in stray dogs. If you are in one of those areas, avoid contact with stray dogs even if they seem friendly and healthy.
There is no reliable test for rabies that can be performed on a living animal. The only way to test for it is to euthanize the animal and test the brain tissue. Rabies is usually diagnosed based on the animal's visible symptoms, which are then confirmed with a brain tissue test after the animal dies. Since rabies moves quickly once symptoms appear, veterinarians may quarantine animals who are showing symptoms that could be rabies but may also be caused by other diseases. If the symptoms don't progress within a few days, it is something other than rabies.
If you believe your dog was exposed to a rabid animal, call your veterinarian immediately. Even if your dog's rabies vaccine is current, your vet will give your dog a booster shot to help fight off the infection. Your vet may also instruct you to wash the dog's wounds with soap and water before you come in, which may help slow the progress of the virus. Be careful not to touch any saliva or other fluids with your bare skin, and wash any surfaces that your dog or the infected animal has touched. Call your doctor as well, as you may need preventative vaccines. Rabies exposure is an emergency situation that requires immediate medical care.
Even though rabies is uncommon in domestic dogs in many places, it is a serious enough risk that many governments require mandatory quarantines for dogs who bite people. Typically, dogs who bite are held on a 10-day quarantine. This may be at an animal control facility or at the owner's home. A vet will inspect the dog at the beginning and end of the quarantine to look for any rabies symptoms. The rabies virus can only be transmitted when the infected animal is showing symptoms, so there's no risk of transmission if the dog is still healthy after the 10-day quarantine. Some states require longer quarantines of up to six months for unvaccinated dogs.
The average pet dog has a very low chance of getting rabies, but some things can increase that risk. Dogs who aren't vaccinated are always at risk, especially if they're allowed to run around outside without supervision. They may run into a rabid animal and be exposed to the virus. Stray dogs are particularly likely to get it because of this, especially since there is no owner around to notice a bite or other injury. All dogs can get rabies if they aren't vaccinated, so be sure your pets are current on their vaccines.
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