Rabies in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Rabies is one of the deadliest diseases affecting animals, and dogs are no exception. As there is no cure for rabies, keeping up with regular vaccinations is essential. Once a dog is infected, the virus progresses rapidly. It usually takes less than 10 days to develop, but can take up to one year. When the signs begin to present themselves, it is often too late, and sadly, death is unpreventable.

In This Article

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection, caused by a virus secreted in saliva. It affects a dog's nervous system, including the spinal cord and brain, and is fatal once symptoms present themselves.

Signs & symptoms of rabies in dogs

Once a dog is bitten by a rabid animal, the rabies disease progresses in stages.

Prodromal stage: Dogs will exhibit a change in personality and behavior by becoming agitated, anxious, and fearful. Friendly dogs may become aggressive and vice versa. Signs present themselves with the first 2-3 days. Other indicators include:

  • Anxiety

  • Withdrawal from people and other animals

  • Licking the site of the bite wound

  • Hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch

  • Fever

  • Change in tone or bark

Furious stage: Dogs in the furious stage begin to show signs of restlessness and irritability and show a sensitivity to light and sound. They will start wandering around, attacking inanimate objects, animals, and people. Signs in this stage can last 1-7 days. Disorientation and seizures will follow.

Paralytic stage: This stage can develop after the prodromal or furious stage and usually develops 2-4 days after the first symptoms. Paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles can follow resulting in foaming of the mouth. Other symptoms are labored breathing, choking, weakness, respiratory failure, and ultimately, death.

The virus usually incubates from 2-8 weeks before signs are noticed, although transmission of the virus can happen as early as 10 days before any signs or symptoms appear. The infected saliva travels through the nerves and spinal cord toward the brain; once the brain is infected, the virus multiplies and spreads to the salivary glands, which is when the symptoms appear.

If your dog is bitten or scratched by another animal, they must see a vet immediately. Do not wait for signs or symptoms to present themselves as it will be too late to save your dog.

How do dogs get rabies?

Contrary to what people may believe, there is more than one way a dog can become infected with the rabies virus. The most common is through a bite from a rabid animal, as animals infected with rabies secrete large amounts of the virus in their saliva. However, rabies can also be transmitted if an infected animal’s saliva comes into contact with a scratch, an open wound, or areas like the mouth, eyes, or nose.

The highest risk comes from wild animals; any unvaccinated dog allowed to roam alone without supervision has a greater chance of being bitten by another animal. The most common carriers of the rabies virus are raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes.

How long is the incubation period for rabies in dogs?

The incubation period for rabies, or the time it takes for signs to appear, can vary from ten days to one year. However, the average incubation period for infected dogs is between 2-8 weeks.

The time it takes for the symptoms to appear can vary depending on the severity of the bite, the amount of the virus injected, and the location of the infection. The closer the infection is to the spinal cord or the brain, the quicker it will reach the nervous system and begin to present severe effects.

Diagnosing rabies in dogs

The only way to definitively diagnose rabies is through a direct fluorescence antibody (dFA) test, in which samples of brain tissue are removed and tested. The test is performed by a state-approved laboratory and can only be done on dogs after they have died or been humanely euthanized.

A rabies diagnosis in living animals is based upon the clinical signs exhibited along with patient history. It can be difficult to confirm rabies in areas where the virus is not common. Early stages of the virus can also be confused with other medical conditions.

Treatment for rabies in dogs

There is no cure for the rabies virus, and for any unvaccinated dog, the result is fatal. Because rabies presents a severe health risk, to prevent further transmission of the disease to other animals and humans, the dog is most often euthanized.

In dogs that have been vaccinated against rabies, a booster vaccine is administered if there is a possibility they have been infected. This helps to strengthen the dog’s immunity to rabies and reduces the chances of the virus developing. Even if a dog has been vaccinated, if rabies is suspected, he may still be required to undergo observation for up to 7-10 days.

If your dog is bitten by another person’s pet, try to obtain as much information on that animal as possible, particularly vaccine history and a rabies tag number or dog license number (if available).

A rabies diagnosis is required by law to be reported to the local health department. Unvaccinated dogs bitten or exposed to a rabid animal must be quarantined for up to six months, according to local and state regulations. A vaccinated dog that has attacked another animal, or human, will also be quarantined in an approved facility, and can still face euthanization.

Is there a cure for rabies in dogs?

There is no cure for rabies and sadly, dogs who contract the virus or are suspected of having rabies and haven’t been properly vaccinated, are almost always euthanized.

Is rabies in dogs contagious for humans or other pets?

The rabies virus is contagious for humans and other pets. It is spread to both humans and animals in the same way, through the saliva from a bite wound. If you or your dog is bitten by a wild animal or a bat, they should be considered rabid (unless proven otherwise through a laboratory diagnosis) and medical attention must be sought immediately.

If you or your dog is bitten by a domestic animal, almost all states require that the animal that bit you must be placed under observation and confined for 10 days. A 10-day quarantine is necessary because a rabies-infected animal can only transmit the disease after clinical signs have developed. If no signs have developed after the 10-day confinement, this means the dog could not have transmitted rabies to you at the time of the bite.

If an unvaccinated dog is bitten by another animal, they may be required to be quarantined for up to six months, depending on the state you live in, and usually in an approved animal control facility at the owner’s expense. The incubation period for rabies is usually less than six months, and so this quarantine period confirms that the unvaccinated dog did not contract rabies before it’s allowed to have contact with people and other animals again.

Tens of thousands of people (especially children) still die of rabies every year, so regular rabies vaccinations for dogs are vitally important for public health.

What is the cost of treating rabies in dogs?

The cost to treat rabies varies depending on whether you are vaccinating only, or if further diagnosis and prevention are needed. The rabies shot itself isn’t usually too expensive, but the office visit is an additional cost that should be factored into the total.

Shelters and clinics may also administer rabies vaccinations at low or no cost. The rabies vaccine is given every 1-3 years, depending on local law and your vet’s recommendation, so the cost is not a one-time commitment.

For cases that require additional attention, the costs will be higher. Placing a dog in quarantine for 10 days can run to several hundred dollars, while a longer confinement may cost a few thousand. The amount may vary depending on factors such as location.

Recovery and management of rabies in dogs

Rabies is a fatal virus, and unless your dog is vaccinated against it, there is no chance of recovery.

Once the dog is out of the house, disinfect any areas the dog might have infected (particularly with saliva). Use a 1:32 dilution (4 ounces to a gallon) of household bleach solution to quickly inactivate the virus. Because the virus is contagious to humans as well, do not allow yourself to come into contact with the dog’s saliva.

Preventing rabies in dogs

When it comes to rabies, prevention is key. The first step is routine rabies vaccinations. Not only do they keep dogs safe, it’s also the law. Talk to your veterinarian about your options and what the law in your area requires.

Along with vaccinating, minimizing exposure is another way to prevent rabies. Do not allow your dog to roam off the leash, especially in wooded areas where wild animals are found, and try to avoid interactions with unknown animals.

Ways to reduce the risk of your dog getting rabies from wildlife:

  • Do not keep wild pets as animals

  • Avoid direct contact with wild animals (alive or not)

  • Avoid animals displaying unruly behavior

  • Do not encourage contact between your pet and wildlife

  • Feed your pet indoors

  • Animal proof your outside garbage

  • Report all stray animals to animal control

Avoid wild animals that seem unusually friendly, tame, or unafraidof humans. This especially applies to raccoons, skunks, foxes, andcoyotes. And NEVER pick up or touch a bat, even if it appears to bedead.

Is there a vaccine for rabies in dogs?

Yes, there is a vaccine for rabies, which is required by law in most (but not all) states. The vaccine promotes the production of antibodies but is only effective if administered before the virus has entered the nervous system. If a dog is not properly vaccinated, the disease is fatal.

When should my dog be vaccinated for rabies?

Dogs should be vaccinated for rabies between the ages of twelve weeks and sixteen weeks. Rabies boosters are also usually required but the frequency depends on state laws. Reach out to your vet for advice on appropriate revaccination intervals as well as any other questions you might have regarding rabies in dogs.

Is it possible to survive a bite from a rabid animal?

Although extremely uncommon, there have been some poorly documented and isolated cases where dogs have survived rabies. This may be due to the rabid animal having very little rabies virus in the saliva at the time of the bite.

What if I come across a rabid dog or another rabid animal?

If you notice an animal that is acting strange and think it may be caused by rabies, try to keep a safe distance between you and the potentially rabid animal. If you have your dog with you, get away from the rabid animal as fast as you can to ensure your pet’s safety. Contact your local health department and animal control immediately. Do not under any circumstances attempt to trap the animal yourself. While waiting for authorities to arrive, try to warn anyone passing by to stay a safe distance away from the rabid animal.

What if my dog has contact with a potentially rabid animal?

Contact your vet immediately so they can examine and clean the wound and give your dog a rabies booster. Do not attempt to clean the wound yourself unless you have rubber gloves and know what you are doing. Rabies is contagious to people so if you come in contact with the wound you can also become infected.  

You should also contact your local health department and file a report so they are able to find and remove the rabid animal from the area before it harms any other people or animals.

Summary of rabies in dogs

Rabies is a deadly virus with no cure, and vaccination is both essential for prevention, and legally required in the majority of US states. Staying on top of your dog’s booster shots and keeping them protected from situations that might endanger their health will significantly minimize the risk of rabies.

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