Rabies is one of the deadliest diseases affecting animals, and dogs are no exception. The disease is caused by a virus secreted in saliva that attacks the nervous system, leading to death. Most cases of rabies in animals, and even humans, are a result of a bite from an infected animal. 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.
Once a dog is infected, the virus progresses rapidly. It usually takes less than 10 days to develop, but can take up to a month. When the signs begin to present themselves, it is often too late, and sadly, death is unpreventable.
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:
- Withdrawal from people and other animals
- Licking the site of the bite wound
- Hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch
- 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.
A dog bitten or scratched by another animal 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.
What causes rabies in dogs
Because dogs who are infected with the rabies virus secrete large amounts of the virus in their saliva, rabies is primarily spread through a bite from an infected animal. It can also be transmitted through a scratch, an open wound, or when the infected saliva comes in contact with 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.
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 but it may also be transmitted through other points of entry that come in contact with saliva.
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.
There is no way to accurately diagnosis the disease in a live animal. The most accurate test in confirming the rabies virus involves the examination of brain tissue, which can only be performed after the dog has died.
Treating Your Dog for Rabies
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 they’re 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.
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?
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 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 bitten by a domestic animal, the injured dog 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. Once those signs have emerged, death usually follows either naturally or through euthanization. If the dog shows no signs after the 10-day confinement, they did not contract the rabies virus.
If an unvaccinated dog is bitten by another animal the quarantine can be as long as six months, depending on the state you live in. Although the incubation period for rabies is usually less than six months, longer confinement is necessary before allowing regular contact with the bitten dog.
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 for 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.
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). Of course, if it’s a wild animal this might not be possible unless the animal dies (then testing can be done).
For dogs that are up to date on their vaccines, an additional rabies vaccine will be administered, with observation still being mandatory. Because there is no cure and the disease is contagious, dog owners must take every precaution to keep their dog and others safe from possible contamination.
Recovery and Management of Rabies
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.
Since rabies is a fatal virus, there is no chance for recovery if your dog is unvaccinated. If your dog is up to date with boosters and enough time has passed since the vaccination to build up satisfactory immunity, your dog will not catch rabies post-vaccination.
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:
- No 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 unafraid of humans. This especially applies to raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. And NEVER pick up or touch a bat, even if it appears to be dead.
Is there a vaccine for rabies?
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.
Although rabies can be a deadly virus, preventing it is not as difficult. Stay on top of your dog’s vaccinations, make sure they are given when needed, and keep your dog protected from situations that might endanger their health, and you will significantly minimize the risk of rabies.