Rabies in Dogs: Fatal, But Preventable

Rabies in Dogs

Since 1982, the World Health Organization has recommended vaccination (rather than removal) of free-roaming dogs to control rabies. Since launching in 2007, World Rabies Day has helped educate more than 200 million people about the virus, and has vaccinated millions of dogs in 150 countries around the globe. 

You can protect your dog from contracting rabies, and you may be able to treat the disease if you act fast. But the harsh reality is this -- there is no cure for rabies. Once symptoms appear, the rabies virus is fatal

In honour of World Rabies Day 2021, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your pets from rabies.

What is rabies?

According to the humane society, “Rabies (Lyssavirus) is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system in mammals.”

Stages and progression of rabies

Incubation period: the stage leading up to visible symptoms can range from 10 days to 1 year or more. In dogs, the incubation period is typically 2weeks to 4 months.

Prodromal phase (2-3 days): following the incubation period, temperament begins to change; social animals become shy, quiet animals become agitated.

Following the prodromal phase, are two forms of the clinical disease

Furious rabies: the infected animal becomes aggressive, agitated and excitable, and will show signs of a depraved appetite (eating and chewing stones, earth, and rubbish). Next, paralysis will take hold of the animal making it impossible for him to eat or drink. The animal will eventually seize and die.

Dumb rabies: more common form of rabies in dogs. Owners will notice progressive paralysis of the dog’s limbs and distortion of the face. The dog will have difficulty swallowing. Rabid dogs will slip into a coma and die.

How does rabies spread?

The rabies virus, which can affect both domestic and wild animals, is spread through the saliva (usually by bites or scratches). Rabies travels from the brain to the salivary glands during the final stage of the disease (a few days before death), which is when the infected animal is most likely to spread the virus.

Rabies is not airborne, and it is not transmitted through the blood, urine or feces of an infected animal.

The rabies virus cannot survive exposure to open air. It can only survive in the saliva of living animals. The virus dies when the saliva of a rabid animal dries up.

Rabies can't go through unbroken skin. People can get rabies only via a bite from a rabid animal or possibly through scratches, abrasions, open wounds or mucous membranes in contact with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal.- HumanSociety.org

Are certain animals more likely to contract and spread rabies?

Only mammals can carry and transmit the rabies virus.In North America, the most common warm-blooded carriers are:

  • Raccoons (~35% of all animal rabies cases)
  • Foxes and coyotes
  • Skunks
  • Bats (less than 0.5% of all bats in North America carries rabies)
  • Squirrels and chipmunks
  • Rats and mice
  • Hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs
  • Rabbits and hares
  • Opossums

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Because the rabies virus affects the nervous system, most infected (rabid) animals will show clear signs of abnormal behaviour, such as:

  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • No fear of humans
  • Wobbly or difficulty walking (seeming “drunk”)
  • Acting disoriented
  • Seeming partially paralyzed
  • Self-mutilating
  • Walking in circles
  • Excessive drooling
  • Hissing or growling
  • Biting at imaginary and real objects
  • Nocturnal animals may become active during the day

Can I get rabies from my dog?

Yes. Rabies is zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted between species. In fact, 99% of human rabies cases result from domestic dogs transmitting the virus to humans. If you (or anyone you know) has been bitten by any wild animal, it’s critical to seek medical attention right away. 

In Feb. 2018, the WHO (World Health Organization) issued a new rabies vaccination and post-exposure recommendation stating, “Those who have been bitten and have not previously been vaccinated for rabies should receive immunoglobulin (antibody) promptly, followed by a series of vaccines. Those previously vaccinated do not require immunoglobulin, but will still receive several vaccines against the virus.”

What should I do if I suspect my dog has rabies?

If your pet has been bitten or scratched by any animal, domestic or wild:

  • Contact your veterinarian immediately for instructions on what to do next
  • If possible, scrub the wound aggressively with soap and water
  • Apply antiseptic, such as betadine or Nolvasan®, if you have it
  • Flush the wound thoroughly with water

Once your pet is safely in the care of your veterinarian, contact local animal control professionals to capture the other animal and test for rabies.

How is rabies treated?

There is no cure for rabies. Once symptoms appear, the disease is fatal.

Following a physical altercation with a rabid animal, immediate delivery of an anti-rabies serum combined with a dose of rabies vaccine may interrupt the progression of the virus. Without vaccination and immediate treatment, however, the chances of survival are poor.

How can I prevent my dog from getting rabies?

The best way to protect your pet from rabies is to get them vaccinated. That goes for cats and dogs alike.

Vcacanada.com says, “Vaccination promotes the production of antibodies but is only effective if given before the virus enters the nervous system. Modern rabies vaccines for dogs, cats, horses, and ferrets are extremely safe and effective.”

If you see a wild animal that appears to be sick, do not approach it, and do not touch it. Contact your local animal control, veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator for assistance.

World Rabies Day

September 28, 2021 marks the 15th annual World Rabies Day. Events are happening around the world ... find out how you can get involved in your area.