Rabies in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

dog in forest, rabies and dogs
Jennifer Hellbom / EyeEm / Getty Images

Rabies is a deadly and dangerous illness that strikes dogs and other animals, but it is easily preventable. Pet dogs (and cats) are legally required to be vaccinated for rabies in most areas for good reason since it's highly contagious. But if your dog is unprotected from the virus it can become rabid so it helps to know the consequences and what to do to keep your whole family safe.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a serious viral disease seen in mammals that adversely affects the central nervous system, leading to death. The majority of reported cases involve wild animals like bats, raccoons, and skunks, but domesticated animals like dogs and cats are also at risk.

Symptoms of Rabies in Dogs

Rabies symptoms tend to vary, and at first, there are non-specific signs such as lethargy, fever, vomiting, and lack of appetite. But signs will quickly worsen into more specific symptoms. Here is the path that the infection will take in a dog:

  • The infected saliva travels through the nerves and spinal cord towards the brain.
  • The virus then incubates in the body for three to 24 weeks (depending on species, location of the bite, and other factors), with no symptoms of the disease present.
  • Once the brain is infected by rabies, the virus quickly multiplies and spreads to the salivary glands and the symptoms of rabies appear.

Infected dogs may show some, but not show all the following clinical signs of rabies:

Symptoms

  • Personality changes
  • Licking the bite wound
  • Sensitivities to environment
  • Aggression
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis
  • Excessive salivating
  • Respiratory distress

Personality Changes

Initial signs of a dog infected with rabies include behavior and personality changes. You will see a dog become fearful and anxious, and it will withdraw from people and other animals.

Licking the Bite Wound

A dog will excessively lick the site of the original bite wound. This can give you a good visual indication there is a serious problem that your vet needs to address.

Sensitivities to Environment

A rabid dog will progress to signs of becoming restless, agitated, and it will overreact to sights and sounds in the environment.

Aggression and Disorientation

As rabies progresses, a dog will become extremely aggressive, then disoriented. This aggression can also cause the dog to self-mutilate.

Seizures

A dog with rabies will begin to have seizures as the disease progresses.

Paralysis

Dogs with rabies may also experience paralysis of the head and neck area.

Excessive Salivating

Paralysis causes difficulty swallowing. This inability to swallow produces excess drooling and salivation, which is where the term "foaming at the mouth" came from as it relates to rabies.

Respiratory Distress

An infected dog in the last stages of rabies will have difficulty breathing. Sadly, death soon follows.

Rabid dog snarling
Priscila Zambotto/Getty Images

Causes of Rabies

The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected mammal, or host. Contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth can technically pass on the virus, but these instances are rare. A bite from the host is the most likely and common way for an animal or person to contract rabies.

Diagnosing Rabies in Dogs

The only way to definitively diagnose rabies in dogs is through a direct fluorescent antibody test (dFA) using samples of brain tissue that can only be obtained after death. Diagnosis in living animals is presumptive and based upon clinical signs and patient history. In pets that have been exposed to rabies, a quarantine period may be necessary to watch for signs of the disease, particularly in unvaccinated pets. Pets with no vaccine history are often euthanized.

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure or effective treatment for rabies. Animals with obvious and advanced signs of rabies must be euthanized. This is done so the animal does not suffer and to prevent further transmission of the disease to humans and other animals.

Prognosis for Dogs With Rabies

Once the symptoms of rabies have appeared in animals (and humans), the prognosis is poor. Death usually occurs less than a week after the onset of signs.

How to Prevent Rabies

Prevention is key when it comes to rabies and fortunately, it is also quite simple. First and foremost, dogs and other pets should receive routine rabies vaccines. The traditional rabies vaccine was given to dogs once per year. Interest in decreasing vaccine frequency led to the development of a three-year rabies vaccine. Talk to your vet about your options and find out what the law in your area mandates.

Next to vaccination, minimizing exposure is the best way to prevent rabies. Do not allow your dog to roam out of your sight, especially in wooded areas where wild animal encounters are more common. Keep your dog on a leash, avoid interactions with unknown animals, and stay away from bats, which are frequent carriers of the virus. If your dog does get an animal bite, see your vet right away.

If your pet (or a person) is bitten by an animal, obtain as much information as possible about the offending animal. If the biting animal was someone's pet, get their contact information and find out about the vaccine history and possible past exposure to rabies. If it was a wild animal, you may not be able to find out much unless that wild animal is dead. Either way, local authorities should be notified of the situation.

Is Rabies Contagious to Humans?

Rabies is a zoonotic disease (a disease that can be spread from animals to people). That means humans are equally susceptible to the rabies virus if bitten by an infected animal. Bites to humans should be addressed immediately by a physician. The incubation period in humans before symptoms appear is on average 20 to 90 days. However, rare cases have experienced incubation periods of less than a week or more than six years, depending on the gravity of the bite.

In humans, multiple extensive diagnostic tests can be run with samples of saliva, blood, hair, and skin, but these are not absolute, Humans exposed to rabies will need to undergo a regimen called postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), a series of injections that include immune globulin and rabies vaccine. PEP is not effective in humans after symptoms are noted. As with animals, rabies in humans is almost always fatal once the signs appear. Supportive care is the only option at this point. A human rarely dies in the United States from rabies, with only a handful of cases a year typically reported, mostly from bites from infected wildlife.

Rabies vaccines are also available for humans, though the protocol is more complicated. Therefore the vaccine is typically only given to people who work with pets or wildlife, or those who travel to areas with high exposure risk. People who have received the vaccine will still need PEP after exposure to rabies.

Preventing rabies in humans is critical. Learn about dog bite prevention and teach your children how to be cautious around animals.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.