Rabies is one of the most feared canine diseases, Likely because rabid dogs and wildlife can spread the disease to humans. Although the disease is deadly, post-exposure vaccination can save human lives.
Rabies is transmitted through saliva, usually through animal bites. In some cases, it is possible for rabies to be transmitted through licking or scratching. If rabid dogs lick an open wound on another animal or human, it is possible for rabies to contaminate the wound. Bites from rabid dogs or other rabid animals, however, account for the vast majority of rabies cases.
While rabies can infect any mammal, the disease rarely affects herbivores. Dogs, skunks, bats, raccoons and foxes are common rabies carriers.
While rabies brings to mind rabid dogs, domestic cats are more likely to carry rabies than dogs in the U.S. This is because cats are more likely to roam freely than dogs, and, therefore, more likely to encounter rabid wildlife.
Stages of Rabies
The rabies virus attacks the nervous system, resulting in encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain tissue. The disease has a variable incubation period, ranging from two to eight weeks. However, rabies can be transmitted within ten days of infection, before symptoms of rabies develop.
Rabid dogs progress through three distinct stages of rabies symptoms: prodomal, furious and paralytic. Once rabies symptoms develop, death is inevitable.
- Prodomal Stage: The prodomal stage of rabies lasts between two and three days. Rabid dogs begin to develop behavioral changes. The dog may chew at the bite site and develop a fever. Eye reflexes may be abnormal and slow.
- Furious Stage: The furious stage lasts two to four days, and is the stage of rabies most people think of when they imagine rabid dogs. During the furious stage rabid dogs exhibit increasingly erratic behavior, including aggression, restlessness, roaming, barking and disorientation. Rabid dogs may viciously attack inanimate objects and can suffer from seizures.
- Paralytic Stage: The final stage of rabies lasts two to four days. Paralysis develops, usually originating in the bitten limb. Throat paralysis results in an unusual bark, slack jaw, drooling and foaming at the mouth (one of the classic symptoms in rabid dogs). Paralysis is followed by depression, coma, respiratory paralysis and death.
Rabies Vaccinations and Prevention
No treatment is currently available for rabid dogs. Euthanasia is the only course of action. Vaccinations remain the best way to protect your dog from rabies. Depending on where you live rabies vaccinations may be required annually or only every three years.
Should a wild animal or a rabid dog bite your dog, vaccinations become especially important. Dogs with up-to-date rabies vaccinations receive additional rabies vaccinations and are quarantined for ninety days.
Without rabies vaccinations, a dog bitten by a suspected or confirmed rabid animal faces a much less certain future. Unvaccinated dogs are usually euthanized, and autopsies confirm whether rabies was present.
If owners of unvaccinated dogs cannot bear to euthanize their dogs, the animal can be placed under strict quarantine for six months, and euthanized only if any rabies symptoms develop. If symptoms do not develop, the dog receives rabies vaccinations in the last month of quarantine.
Should your dog bite someone, up-to-date rabies vaccinations may save your dog’s life. A dog that bites someone without up-to-date rabies vaccinations will be euthanized to determine if the bitten person requires post-exposure rabies vaccinations.
As well as vaccinations, it’s important to prevent your dog from having contact with possibly rabid wildlife. Dogs should not be encouraged to roam. Spaying and neutering dogs often reduces the urge to roam.
Humans and Rabies
Although rabies is not a common canine disease, it’s ability to infect and kill a human makes it very serious. If a dog bites you, get as much information as possible to help identify the dog, including:
- a physical description
- dog license numbers
- dog’s name
- owner’s address
- owner’s name
- owner’s phone number
- vaccination information.
If a rabid dog does bite a human, the person receives post-exposure rabies vaccinations. Five vaccinations are given over the course of the next month, and the person is quarantined and watched carefully for symptoms of rabies.