Usually transmitted through the bite of an infected animal, rabies is a preventable viral infection that affects the central nervous system, particularly causing inflammation of the brain. In some rare instances, the rabies virus is transmitted when the saliva from the infected animal comes into contact with an open cut on the skin or the eyes, nose, or mouth of an animal.
Dogs can contract rabies, but other animals like cats, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, and bats, can carry the rabies virus and transfer it to humans too. In the United States, more than 90% of reported rabies cases in animals occur in wildlife. Most pets get rabies from having contact with this wildlife. Thankfully, the availability of vaccines for both animals and humans has led to a decline in rabies cases in the United States, where there are only a few human deaths per year. The virus is entirely treatable in humans when met with a quick response.
Many of us picture a dog foaming at the mouth as the tell-tale sign of rabies. However, you can’t always tell if an animal has rabies by just looking at it – some may be aggressive and try to bite, while others are timider and might move slowly. Some common symptoms to keep an eye out for include:
- General sickness
- Problems swallowing
- Excessive drooling or saliva
- Biting constantly
- Appearing tamer than you would expect
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for a dog with rabies. Dogs who contract the virus or are suspected of having rabies and haven’t been appropriately vaccinated are almost always euthanized. If rabies is suspected, the dog has to be kept in isolation. A dog must be quarantined for ten days, after which there are no signs of infection; the god will be deemed healthy. If a dog was previously vaccinated, a prompt booster of the rabies vaccine might be recommended.
Rabies can be confused with other conditions that cause aggressive behavior, so a diagnosis is based on the history of possible exposure. The only way to know if your dog has rabies for sure is to perform a rabies test through a laboratory, which detects the presence of rabies virus antigens in the brain. This rabies test, called the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test, can only be performed after a dog has died or been euthanized due to rabies. Your veterinarian is required by law to notify the local or state animal disease authorities, and they will take the necessary steps to adequately protect the public.
Nearly all dogs that get rabies have not received a vaccination or were not up to date on the rabies vaccination, so it’s essential to regularly bring your dog to the vet. The law requires dogs to be vaccinated for rabies in the United States, which is why dogs make up only about 1% of rabid animals reported each year. Vaccination only works if given before the virus enters the nervous system, and modern rabies vaccines for dogs are highly safe and effective. Other ways to protect your dog include keeping them away from wild animals, animal proofing your outside garbage, spaying or neutering your pet, keeping bats out of your home, and calling animal control to remove stray animals from your neighborhood. Many states also attempt to vaccinate wild animals (mainly raccoons) to prevent the spread of rabies, mainly through a particular food vaccine.
Rabies in Humans
It usually takes 4 to 12 weeks for a person to develop rabies symptoms once they’re infected. The initial onset of rabies symptoms in humans is generally flu-like, such as fever, muscle weakness, and tingling. Two different types of rabies can develop – furious rabies and paralytic rabies. Infected people who develop furious rabies will be hyperactive and may display erratic behavior. Infected people with paralytic rabies will slowly become paralyzed and slip into a coma.
For most people, the risk of contracting rabies is relatively low. Scenarios that may put you at a higher risk include: living in an area populated with bats, traveling to developing countries, living in a rural area with more wild animals and less access to vaccines, and frequent camping. Children under the age of 15 are more likely to contract the rabies virus. After being exposed to the rabies virus, you can get a series of injections to prevent an infection from taking hold of your nervous system. Rabies immunoglobulin, which gives you an immediate dose of the antibodies to fight the disease, helps prevent the virus from developing further.
While the rabies virus can be devastating in both dogs and humans, it is entirely preventable through proper pet care by having regular vet visits, keeping vaccinations up to date, and limiting contact with other wild animals. If your dog has contact with a potentially rabid animal, call your veterinarian immediately for an examination of the wound and treatment. Keep in mind that you could catch rabies through your dog’s saliva, so don’t touch the damage and wear disposable gloves. Quick action and vaccination are the keys to protecting yourself and your fur baby from rabies!