Rabies is a disease caused by a virus found in the saliva of infected animals. In the United States of America, it is most commonly found in bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes but any wild mammal can carry it – yet another reason to keep coyotes away from your yard. While relatively rare, even in wild animals, the results of contracting this disease are so disastrous that it is best to take it seriously and take steps to prevent its transmission, however unlikely it may seem.
Any warm-blooded animal can contract rabies, including humans. Once the symptoms of the disease present themselves, there is, unfortunately, nothing that can be done to prevent the disease’s progression. That is why vaccination in cats and dogs, and rapid intervention in other animals and people that may have been exposed, are so vital.
How Do Dogs Get Rabies?
Dogs most often get exposed to rabies when they come into contact with infected wildlife or, less likely, infected dogs and cats. The virus can be found in large numbers in the saliva of infected animals and so the most common way for the disease to be transmitted is through a bite from an infected animal.
The disease can also be transmitted to your dog through an open wound or the membranes of their eyes if either comes in contact with infected saliva. This can even happen through unseen sores or irritations inside your dog’s mouth so it is important to never let him or her chew, lick or roll in a newly dead animal.
Thankfully, the rabies virus does not live very long outside of a host’s body or in the flesh that has been dead long enough to have cooled. Even if your dog is one that always seems to find the stinky dead thing to roll in, the risk of contracting rabies in that way is almost nonexistent.
What to Do If Your Suspect Exposure
Any time that your dog is bitten your pet should be seen by your vet. If you saw the bite happen, and it was a pet cat or dog that did it, it is best to detain that animal until you can verify that it has had its rabies vaccination.
If you did not see the bite and/or it came from a stray animal or wildlife then your dog will need to be quarantined for up to 6 months or, tragically, euthanized, if they do not have a current rabies vaccination.
These rules may seem harsh but the risks of letting a rabid animal loose on an unsuspecting public are harsher. The best way to avoid any of this and to protect your family and neighborhood from these risks is to keep your dog’s rabies vaccinations up to date.
Symptoms of Rabies
A dog may not begin to show symptoms of rabies for quite some time after being infected (1). This lengthy incubation period is the reason for a lengthy quarantine in cases of suspected exposure. Thankfully, rabies in dogs, and other creatures, can only be transmitted after symptoms have appeared.
There are two types of rabies infections, both occur when the rabies virus has made its way through the nervous system to the animal’s brain and begun to make changes there.
Furious rabies is the type that horror movies are made about. The clinical signs of this type of rabies in dogs, include the animal becoming very aggressive and perhaps eating strange things including dirt, concrete, wood, or other indigestible material. This is followed by paralysis, starting with the face and neck. The infected dog will drool copiously and will not be able to eat or drink. Eventually, they will begin to have seizures and die.
Paralytic rabies sometimes referred to as dumb rabies, is the most common type of rabies in dogs. In this case, the clinical signs do not include changes in behavior, just progressive paralysis affecting the limbs, face, and neck. Like furious rabies, this type ends in seizures and death.
Keeping a close eye on other animals you can in contact with, especially stray animals or wildlife, is always wise. While the symptoms of a rabid animal may differ a bit from those you see in dog’s there are some universally worrying signs that you should watch out for:
- Odd Behaviors – this may be a usually friendly animal being aggressive or a wild animal being friendly and unafraid
- Drooling – especially if you also see white, frothy looking drool
- Difficulty Swallowing – sometimes the infected animals appear to be choking
- Trouble Walking – frequently these animals weave, stumble and fall down as they lose control of the muscles in their legs
- Paralysis – this may start out in only one leg, the tailor the muscles of the face but eventually all the body muscles are affected.
- Seizures – this is the last stage. Once the seizures have begun, death is not far off.
If you see signs of rabies or suspect a rabid animal, do not try to handle the situation yourself. Immediately call animal control and let the professionals, with their training, experience, and protective equipment take care of it.
Vaccinate, Vaccinate, Vaccinate
There is no known cure for rabies once the symptoms have set in and, once the symptoms have begun the result is always death. Since there is always the possibility that your dog or cat could have gotten a small bite or scratch that went unnoticed, the only way to keep your dog, your other pets, and your family, safe from rabies exposure is to keep your dog vaccinated.
Rabies vaccines begin in puppyhood and boosters must be given every 2 years to keep your dog fully protected. Your vet will give you either a tag, a certificate, or both to verify that your dog has been vaccinated. Keep the tag on your dog’s collar and the certificate handy in case the need to prove your dog has been vaccinated arises. This could happen if your dog is bitten or if your dog bites you, another person, or another pet.
If you have more exotic mammals for pets there may not be a rabies vaccine approved for them. Talk to your vet for suggestions. It may be wise just not to own wild creatures as pets, especially raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats as they seem to be the most vulnerable to rabies infections.
Dogs get rabies by coming in contact with the saliva or blood of infected animals. While it may not be possible to prevent exposure, it is possible to prevent infection in dogs. Keeping your dog up to date with his rabies vaccines will not only prevent infection but will also eliminate the need to quarantine or euthanize your beloved friend in cases of suspected exposure.
Can a dog get rabies without being bitten?
The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. While bites are by far the most common mode of transmission from one animal to another, it is possible for the virus to enter the body through an already existing wound if it comes into contact with an infected animal’s saliva.
Do all dog bites cause rabies?
No. The vast majority of dog bites do not cause rabies. When you consider how many dogs there are in America, the incidence of rabies infection is very low, with only 400 to 500 cases reported annually. The only way for a dog bite to transmit rabies is if the biting animal has an active rabies infection.
How do animals get rabies without being bitten?
An animal can get rabies without being bitten if they have an open wound and they come into contact with an infected animal’s blood or saliva. These wounds do not have to be large and maybe small cuts or irritations in your dog’s mouth. Never let your dog lick, roll in, or even sniff at a dead animal.
Can a dog get rabies from eating something?
The only way a dog could get rabies from eating something would be if that something was a newly dead animal that had been infected with rabies. The virus does not survive for very long outside of a host nor will it be present in a dead animal that has begun to decompose. There is no risk of contracting rabies from any processed foods, rawhides, or even raw meat that has been refrigerated.