Rabies in Dogs
Rabies is an incurable virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord. All mammals, including dogs and humans, can catch rabies. While it’s preventable, once the symptoms of rabies appear, the virus is 100% fatal. According to the CDC, rabies kills nearly 60,000 people worldwide every year. Dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans. Keep reading to learn about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of rabies in our pets.
Each year, about 400 to 500 cases of rabies are reported in domestic pets like cats, dogs, and ferrets. Rabies isn’t particularly common in dogs in the United States, because it is 100% preventable with vaccination.
Causes and Transmission of Rabies
Rabies can be passed from any infected warm-blooded animal to another. Most often, this occurs through the bite of an infected animal since the virus is secreted in saliva. When a bite breaks the skin, the virus can enter the bloodstream. It can also pass through an open wound that is exposed to the saliva of an infected animal, usually by licking.
While it can pass between pets, rabies in dogs most frequently comes from exposure to wild animals like bats, raccoons, and foxes.
Clinical Signs of Rabies in Dogs
Following a bite from a rabid animal, the disease progresses in stages.
Prodromal phase (first phase): In this phase, the dog undergoes a marked change in temperament. Quiet dogs become agitated and active pets become nervous or shy. This phase can last 2-3 days.
Following the prodromal phase, there are two recognized forms of the clinical disease:
Furious rabies: This stage occurs when the rabid dog becomes aggressive, highly excitable, and displays evidence of a voracious appetite, even eating non-food items such as stones or trash.
Paralysis eventually sets in and the rabid animal may be unable to eat and drink. The dog finally dies in a violent seizure. Hydrophobia (fear of water) is not a sign of rabies in dogs as it is with human rabies.
Dumb or paralytic rabies: This stage is the more common form in dogs and is often associated with salivating, rabid dog imagery. There is progressive paralysis involving the limbs, distortion of the face, and a similar difficulty in swallowing. Owners will frequently think the dog has something stuck in the mouth or throat. Care should be taken during examination since rabies may be transmitted by saliva. Ultimately the dog becomes comatose and dies.
How is rabies diagnosed in dogs?
Rabies is not easily diagnosed by a blood test. To be 100% accurate, testing requires a biopsy of brain tissue, so it can’t be completed until the animal has died or been euthanized. In the United States, the results of a rabies test are typically available within 24 to 72 hours after an animal is collected and euthanized.
Can rabies be treated?
Once symptoms appear, there’s no way to treat rabies in dogs. Unfortunately, if your vet suspects rabies, your dog may be euthanized since they’re a risk of spreading a fatal virus to humans and other animals.
If a wild animal bites your dog, a booster of the rabies vaccination may be given to lessen the chance that your dog will contract the virus.
Vaccination is the cornerstone of rabies prevention. Vaccination promotes the production of antibodies but is only effective if given before the virus enters the nervous system. There are several rabies vaccines approved for dogs, cats, horses, and ferrets.
All dogs and cats between the ages of twelve and sixteen weeks should be vaccinated for rabies. Then, boosters are needed every 1 to 3 years, depending on the brand of vaccine given. Generally in the United States and Canada, rabies vaccination is mandatory. Your vet will advise you on the appropriate revaccination intervals and can assist you in obtaining any necessary licenses for your pet.
Additionally, minimize the chance your pets will have contact with wildlife. Keep your dogs on leashes and supervise them when outdoors. Covering outdoor garbage will help avoid attracting wildlife. Rabies is a public health concern, and resources are in place to help keep wildlife away from our domestic pets. Call animal control when you notice stray animals or wildlife.
When to Contact a Vet
If your dog has been bitten by another animal, they should see a vet immediately for an exam of the wound and treatment. By proving that your dog has had the rabies vaccine, you can be sure that there’s no threat of rabies transmission.
Your vet can provide a booster to your dog's rabies vaccination and clean the wound to prevent infection. However, if your dog’s vaccinations aren’t up-to-date, they may be quarantined or even euthanized because of the possible threat. Dogs who have bitten people have to be confined for at least 10 days to see if rabies develops.
If your pet was bitten by a wild or stray animal, you or your vet should contact your local health department and file a report. This way, the animal in question can be located and removed from the area, so no other animals are harmed.
Have more questions about rabies and rabies vaccination in dogs?
Schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets.