Puppies who have been exposed to a wild animal, or have gotten into a scuffle with one, could present with symptoms of rabies. Of course, the best protection from this virus is vaccination. Even still, if your puppy receives a bite from any other animal, it's important to visit your vet before it displays a fever or any neurological symptoms, like a seizure or paralysis.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus affecting the brain and spinal cord of dogs and other mammals. This virus, if not treated promptly, can be fatal, especially for puppies who have an underdeveloped immune system.
Symptoms in Puppies
Rabies is a horrible disease for a dog, let alone a puppy, to suffer. At first, your puppy may exhibit behavioral changes, as previously friendly dogs can become irritable and energetic animals may become more docile— and both may exhibit aggression. As the disease progresses, the physical symptoms become apparent—throat and jaw muscles become lax, leading to the infamous foaming at the mouth. The back legs may also seem paralyzed, resulting in a staggering gate and disorientation. A loss of appetite, weakness, and seizures will follow. There is no diagnosis for rabies, nor is there a targeted treatment. The disease can only be fully determined by looking at an infected animal's brain post-mortem.
Causes of Rabies
The rabies disease is passed onto dogs, puppies, or other animals through a bite from an infected animal. The virus—secreted through the infected animal's saliva—then enters the bloodstream of your puppy and begins its work. Rabies can also be contracted through a scratch or open wound or when infected saliva comes in contact with mucosal membranes. Puppies left to roam free can encounter wild animals that carry rabies. Raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks pose the highest risk of transmitting the disease. Should your young dog run into such a creature on its outing, and contact ensues, there's a good chance of it catching the disease.
The only telltale signs your puppy has rabies are the physical symptoms it presents. Yet, the likelihood of survival is grim, as a puppy bitten by a rabid animal is unlikely to survive more than a few days.
If there's even a small chance your dog was exposed to a rabid animal, call your vet immediately, even before symptoms present. In some cases, it is possible to interrupt the infection by administering an anti-rabies serum containing specific antibodies to the virus. Your vet may also be able to prevent the progression of the disease with a rabies vaccine. This helps the puppy's immune system ramp up and produce its own antibodies to the virus. Even still, without almost immediate post-exposure treatment, the results aren't favorable.
If your vaccinated puppy comes down with rabies, your vet will often quarantine it so it won't infect other animals or people. The length of the quarantine varies by state and can include up to six months of isolation, should your puppy survive that long. However, unvaccinated dogs who most definitely have the disease will first be euthanized, and then their body will undergo disease testing.
The only true prevention for contracting rabies is vaccination. A rabies vaccination is imperative for your young dog's health (and required in every state but Hawaii). Each state makes its own rabies laws that delineate when you should vaccinate your dog, but most recommend the first shot between the ages of 3 to 4 months. Some states, like Wisconsin, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and West Virginia, require vaccination after 5 or 6 months. And 13 other states—Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington State, and Wyoming—refer to the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control developed by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. Hawaii does not require a rabies shot because they have never had an incidence of rabies.
Opting out of Vaccination
Some pet owners choose not to vaccinate their dog for fear the vaccine could cause harm. But remember, rabies vaccinations are not given to animals to protect them, they are given to protect humans from the deadly disease. And while it's not technically "illegal" to skip a rabies vaccination, if your dog gets picked up by animal control they will vaccinate it and you may be fined. In some instances—say you have an old pet that is frail or has existing health issues—your vet can write an exemption letter for submittal to the state. This letter then prevents excluding your pet from air travel, boarding, daycare, and grooming. However, if your unvaccinated dog does bite someone, the consequences can be dire, as unvaccinated dogs may be automatically euthanized in some states.