Rabies is a deadly—and scary, might I add— disease that has plagued humans and animals alike, for centuries! Not only does it threaten the lives of our adorable furry friends, but it also poses a risk to human health as well. This interconnection highlights just how important and necessary it is to prioritize rabies prevention in our pets. It’s not only our duty as pet owners, but also a shared responsibility with the broader community. While pet parents are responsible for ensuring their pets are vaccinated and kept under control, the broader community plays a significant role in raising awareness, enforcing vaccination laws, and managing wildlife populations.
In this post, our aim is to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of rabies, accompanied by practical prevention tips to ensure the well-being of both you and your beloved fur baby. Keep reading to stay informed!
What Is Rabies?
Belonging to the Rhabdoviridae family, rabies—as defined by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)—is a viral zoonotic disease that affects the central nervous system, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. It is also listed as one of the world's deadliest infectious diseases by the World Health Organization. The virus travels through the body’s nerves, starting from the site of entry (typically a bite mark) to the spinal cord and brain, where it wreaks havoc—causing inflammation and extensive damage. It is a highly lethal disease and once it advances, it carries a substantial mortality risk.
Rabies is a disease that affects both domestic and wild animals—with the latter more likely to carry the virus. Furthermore, humans can also fall victim to rabies. According to the World Health Organization, dogs are the main source of rabies transmission to humans, contributing to over 90 percent. Rabies is endemic in over 150 countries, such as India, Brazil, and Nigeria and causes thousands of deaths each year, worldwide. In fact, the majority of reported rabies cases are in Asia and Africa.
In the United States, most reports of rabies occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Approximately 5,000 cases of rabies in animals are reported annually, and the vast majority are found in wildlife. Domestic animals, like dogs and cats, only make up about 10 percent of these reported cases.
Through vaccination, awareness, and a combination of other measures, rabies can be effectively prevented.
How Is It Transmitted?
Generally speaking, rabies is predominantly transmitted through saliva when an infected animal bites another. Bites are one of the most common means of transmission and exposure to the disease. When a rabid wild animal bites a human or another animal, such as a dog or a cat, the virus in its saliva is transferred into their body via the wound. Humans can be affected either through direct contact with the wild animal or through their infected pet.
In addition to bites, rabies can also be transmitted through scratches or when the virus-ridden saliva comes into contact with an open wound. For instance, if the infected animal licks an individual or pet that has an open wound or broken skin.
General Symptoms vs. Clinical Symptoms of Rabies in Pets
Rabies has the potential to reside in your pet’s body for an extended period of time before signs develop, ranging from weeks to several months—and in some cases, even a year or longer. For instance, in dogs, this range may span anywhere from two weeks to four months. This is known as the incubation period—the time between when your pet was bitten and the appearance of symptoms. The incubation period for rabies can vary and is influenced by various factors such as the location of the bite, its severity, the amount of virus injected, and your pet’s immune response.
During this time, the virus may be present in your furry friend’s body without showing any signs of illness. As a result, detecting the presence of the virus can be challenging. However, once the virus reaches and multiplies in the brain, most pets will begin to show the first clinical signs of rabies. At this stage, rabies cannot be treated.
When discussing the symptoms of rabies in pets, it’s important to distinguish between general symptoms—which are the observable signs that may indicate your furry friend is not well, and clinical symptoms—which refer specifically to the signs that are indicative of the rabies virus.
Let’s explore a breakdown of both!
As stated earlier, general symptoms of rabies can indicate that your pet is feeling unwell and may have potentially been exposed to the rabies virus. However, keep in mind that these symptoms do not definitively confirm rabies! They simply serve as warning signs that should prompt immediate attention from your veterinarian.
That being said, some general symptoms may include:
Changes in behavior are also another significant symptom. Pets that are possibly infected with rabies may exhibit unusual or erratic behavior, such as increased aggression or restlessness. In some cases, they may also become irritable and display unpredictable tendencies. While aggressive behavior is common among animals with rabies—especially dogs, some may exhibit behavior that is out of character. For example, if your naturally active dog or cat becomes nervous or shy.
If your furry friend displays any of these symptoms, especially if there is any suspicion they have been exposed to the rabies virus, immediate veterinary attention is vital!
Clinical symptoms of rabies in pets are more specific and indicative of the advanced stages of the disease. It can be broken into two types: furious rabies and paralytic (dumb) rabies. Dogs or cats that are affected may show signs of either one or both of these types.
• Aggression and Restlessness: One of the defining characters of furious rabies is extreme aggression and restlessness. Pets that are infected may become more irritable and display aggressive behaviors, such as biting, attacking without provocation, baring their teeth and claws, and more.
• Hallucinations and Delirium
• Changes in vocalization: Making unusual or distressing sounds
• Seizures: Seizures and muscle spasms may occur as the virus affects their central nervous system. Prolonged seizures can lead to death.
• Erratic Eating Patterns: Rabid pets may display abnormal eating behaviors such as pica (consuming non-food items) or suddenly losing interest in all food. The inability to eat or drink is also a possibility.
Paralytic (Dumb) Rabies
• Paralysis: Some pets may experience paralysis, often beginning in the hind limbs and then spreading to other parts of their body. Can lead to respiratory paralysis, which is the ultimate cause of death in these cases.
• Facial Distortion: As the virus affects the nerves in your pet’s body, it can cause facial drooping or altered facial expressions due to muscle weakness. They may also experience difficulty performing typical facial movements, such as closing their eyes or mouth, raising their lip, and more.
• Inability to Swallow: Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is common in pets with paralytic rabies. This is due to the paralysis of throat muscles. Can lead to excessive salivation or foaming at the mouth.
It is imperative for pet parents to understand that once clinical symptoms of rabies appear in their pets, there is no effective treatment. In other words, it is almost universally fatal!
Responsible pet ownership, including routine vaccinations and avoiding contact with potentially rabid animals, is essential in order to protect both you and your beloved fur baby!
How Do Veterinarians Diagnose Rabies in Pets?
Veterinarians will typically start by conducting clinical evaluations of your pet. They will assess your furry friend’s behavior, symptoms, as well as their medical history—including whether or not they are up-to-date on their vaccinations. If they are, then the likelihood of rabies is usually reduced. In cases where there is uncertainty or speculation that your pet has been exposed to the rabies virus, they might be placed under quarantine and observed for a period of time to monitor for any signs of rabies development. Once again, if they remain healthy during this time period, then rabies is often unlikely.
However, I have some heart-wrenching news for all you loving pet parents.
If your dog or cat is strongly suspected of having rabies—especially if they have a history of not receiving vaccinations, euthanasia is typically recommended by veterinarians, and in many cases, it is required by law. Not to mention, the only way for veterinarians to definitively diagnose rabies in pets is through a direct examination of their brain tissue, using a method called direct fluorescent antibody testing. Harsh reality is— this action can only be accomplished after your beloved furry friend has crossed the rainbow bridge. 😞
Important Tips To Protect Your Pets (And Yourself) Against Rabies!
Considering everything we’ve discussed, it’s clear to see why any pet parent would be eager to protect their furry companion from getting this deadly virus.
To prevent your fur baby from contracting rabies, there are a number of actions that you can take. Let’s discuss!
It’s essential to not only educate yourself, but your friends, family, and the entire community about the risk of rabies and the importance of responsible pet ownership. And let’s not forget about our youngest members—teaching kids about the dangers of approaching unfamiliar animals, regardless if they seem friendly or not, is crucial. Additionally, consider organizing awareness campaigns, distribution educational materials, or collaborating with local animal control authorities to amplify efforts. Rabies prevention is a collective effort and with everyone's involvement, a safe environment for both humans and our cherished pets can be ensured.
2. Prompt Veterinary Care
If you notice that your pet has been bitten or scratched by another animal, seek veterinary care immediately—even if it seems like a minor injury. Being that rabies can be transmitted through saliva, early intervention is crucial. Also be sure to schedule routine veterinary check-ups. They will be able to monitor your pets health and discuss any potential risks or concerns relating to rabies or other diseases.
If you have a dog or cat that likes to spend a lot of their time outdoors, especially unsupervised, they are possibly more likely to come in contact with a rabid wild animal—especially if you live in an area where encounters are possible. Always keep a watchful eye on them and your surroundings—don’t let them roam too freely. Always wash your hands after handling your furry friend!
Limit their time outdoors at night and always use a leash when on walks or in public spaces. You may even want to consider using secured enclosures around your yard (e.g., fences, gates, etc.) to keep your pets from wandering into areas where they could be exposed to wildlife, as well as to keep wild or stray animals out.
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease! Ensure that your pet receives regular rabies vaccination as recommended by your veterinarian. Booster shots may also be required and is essential to maintain their immunity against the virus. It is the most effective way of protecting your fur baby and keeping them (and yourself) safe!
Remember, a vaccinated pet is a protected pet and by working together as a community to create a safer environment for both humans and our four-legged companions, the risk of rabies transmission can be reduced!