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Rabies In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, & Prevention

Rabies in dogs is a virus that affects the brain and spinal cord, and it’s always fatal. This is why vaccinating against rabies is so important for dogs. The disease mostly passes through bites because infected animals secrete a large amount of the rabies virus in their saliva.

When symptoms of rabies in dogs appear, they generally include behavioral changes, paralysis, and eventually death. The disease usually takes two weeks to four months to incubate in dogs, though it can take even longer.

Rabies can affect dogs and any other mammal, including humans. In fact, the disease kills more than 50,000 humans and millions of animals each year around the world. Dogs who come into contact with wild animals are more likely to contract it, and un-vaccinated dogs are at much greater risk.

Here’s what you should know about the symptoms, causes, and prevention of rabies in dogs.

Rabies symptoms in dogs

The symptoms of rabies in dogs are fairly obvious and startling. There are two stages of the disease: the furious stage, followed by the paralytic or dumb stage. The names alone tip off just how nasty a malady this is.

At first, rabid dogs show changes in temperament, including:

  • Restlessness
  • Insecurity
  • Apprehension
  • Sudden affection in otherwise reserved dogs
  • Sudden aggression or shyness in otherwise friendly dogs
  • Insensitivity to pain
  • Snapping at imaginary objects, biting, and self-mutilation
  • Sensitivity to light, touch, or sound

In the paralytic stage, the mouth hangs open, saliva drips off of it, and the affected dog can’t eat or drink. Once they become dehydrated, total paralysis follows, and death occurs soon after.

Any animal or human bitten or scratched during either period is considered exposed and needs treatment. Unlike the human form of the disease, canine rabies does not cause hydrophobia, or a fear of water.

Obviously, if you see any of these symptoms — in fact, even if you suspect that your dog has suffered exposure to rabies — get to a vet immediately.

Causes

The most common way rabies is spread to dogs is through the saliva of an infected animal entering through a bite wound, though it can also be spread through mucus membranes or from a scratch or open wound.

Although the Centers for Disease Control recently announced that canine-specific rabies has been eradicated in the US, rabies is still out there among other animals in the wild, and your dog can get it if they haven’t been vaccinated.

In fact, since the 1970s, there’s been an epidemic of rabies among raccoons, and more than half of the cases in dogs originated from that particular wild animal. The rest have come from skunks, foxes, and bats, in that order.

The most likely form of transmission is through a bite from an infected animal — not via fleas, mosquitoes, or other insects — though there have been rare cases of transmission from breathing the air in bat-infested caves.

Rabies vaccine for dogs

• Rabies vaccines are vital for protecting dogs against the rabies virus, which is almost always fatal once clinical signs appear. Dogs are at risk because rabies is common in wild animals like raccoons, bats, foxes and skunks.

• The rabies vaccine is legally required for dogs in most areas. Regular rabies vaccination protects the health of both pets and people, helping prevent transmission to humans through dog bites.

• The rabies vaccine is typically first given to puppies at 12-16 weeks of age. They then receive a follow up one year later, with additional boosters every 1 to 3 years depending on vaccine type, public health regulations, and veterinarian recommendation.

• There are year-long and multi-year vaccines available. Your vet determines appropriate timing based on health status, age, and legal requirements for a current rabies certificate.

• Common side effects of rabies vaccines in dogs can include mild lethargy, soreness at the injection site, mild fever, and decreased appetite. More severe allergic reactions may rarely occur.

• Proper vaccination by a licensed veterinarian provides the best disease protection. Rabies vaccines for dogs are very safe and effective – they protect over 99% of vaccinated animals for more than a year with each booster.

If you believe your dog has been exposed to rabies, the usual veterinary procedure is quarantine of up to six months for un-vaccinated dogs and ten days for dogs who have been vaccinated. You must provide proof of vaccination to your vet.

Sometimes it’s possible to interrupt the progression of rabies immediately after a bite by injecting rabies antiserum, which contains antibodies. The disease is always fatal once symptoms appear, and should that happen, the infected dog will most likely be euthanized. Laws requires veterinarians to report suspected cases of rabies to a government health department.

Prevention is the best medicine

Prevention is the best course of action when dealing with rabies. Make sure you vaccinate your dog. The vaccine is only effective if dogs get it before the virus enters the nervous system. In the United States, rabies vaccination is mandatory for dogs, as are rabies boosters.

Staying away from wild animals is also helpful in preventing the transmission of rabies to dogs. Vaccinated dogs who are bitten must still undergo quarantine and will likely get another booster shot as an added precaution, though if antibodies are present in a dog’s blood, they will generally be safe from rabies.

Rabies in humans: what are the symptoms?

Here are some of the most common symptoms of rabies in humans:

  • Fever – One of the early symptoms is often a high fever, sometimes over 104°F (40°C). The fever is a reaction to the virus now multiplying in the body.
  • Headache – Severe headaches may start around the same time as the fever develops. The headaches are likely due to inflammation caused by the virus infecting the brain and nerves.
  • Fatigue/Weakness – As the virus progresses, fatigue and muscle weakness often set in. This makes it difficult to engage in normal daily activities.
  • Discomfort/Pain – People may experience intense discomfort or pain at the site of the animal bite, as well as numbness or tingling due to nerve inflammation.
  • Nausea/Vomiting – Nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain are common due to the virus’s effect on the digestive and nervous systems.
  • Agitation – People often start displaying abnormal behavior like anxiety, agitation, confusion or delirium. The inflammation is affecting brain function.
  • Hallucinations – Many people experience hallucinations as the virus continues attacking the brain and nerves.
  • Excess salivation – As the disease advances, some people complain of increased saliva production and drooling. This is because the virus is now overwhelming areas of the brain that control salivary glands.

In the later stages, symptoms worsen leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing, seizures, and ultimately death if no treatment was received. Seeking immediate medical care when rabies is suspected is crucial. Vaccination shortly after exposure can still prevent the virus from causing disease.

Is rabies curable in humans?

No, once clinical symptoms of rabies appear in humans, the disease is nearly 100% fatal. However, rabies can be prevented if treatment is administered shortly after exposure, before the onset of symptoms. Here are some key points about the curability of rabies:

  • There is no cure once clinical signs appear. At this point, the viral infection has spread through the nerves and into the brain. Supportive medical care can only prolong inevitable death by a few days.
  • Early post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can prevent the onset of rabies. This involves thoroughly cleaning the wound followed by a regimen of rabies vaccine over 28 days along with rabies immunoglobulin. PEP is nearly 100% effective if administered promptly after exposure.
  • The rabies virus has an incubation period that averages 1-3 months after initial infection, but can vary from under a week to over a year. This window provides an opportunity to get PEP to stimulate an immune response that neutralizes the virus before it reaches the brain or spinal cord.
  • Less than 15 cases of human rabies survivors have been documented, and survivors have generally suffered long-term neurological impairment. Survival has involved placing the patient in a coma while providing intense supportive therapy which is not readily accessible or successful.

So in summary, rabies is only curable in the sense that PEP can prevent the virus from ever reaching the brain if given in time. But once symptoms emerge indicating an active infection has invaded the central nervous system, rabies is essentially 100% fatal.

Alva Thomas
Alva Thomas
Alva Thomas expert in training and caring for pet dog breeds. Whether he spending quality time with her own furry companions or contributing to websites such as Dogsbreed.org and Animalpet.com, dedicated to our canine.

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