Rabies in dogs

Key Takeaways

Rabies is very rare in dogs, with around 50 annual cases in the United States.

• Rabies is a virus transmitted in the saliva of infected animals. It is passed by bite wounds inflicted between mammals 

• Symptoms of rabies include aggression, excessive salivation, staggering, loss of appetite, and seizures

Rabies virus affects all mammals and has a nearly 100% fatality rate, making it a significant human health concern

The only method to protect dogs from rabies and post-exposure euthanasia is by keeping their rabies vaccination current

Any dog exposed to a wild animal requires immediate veterinary care

• Vaccinated dogs receive a booster vaccine in an effort to prevent infection and may be subject to mandatory quarantine

• Unvaccinated dogs are handled on a case-by-case basis, according to local legislation

Rabies testing may be mandated for unvaccinated dogs who bite people, and this requires euthanizing the exposed dog to complete the test

A Closer Look: What is Rabies in Dogs?

Although rabies is very rare in dogs, the virus has a nearly 100% fatality rate once symptoms develop. This viral illness is of grave concern to owners of unvaccinated dogs who are exposed to reservoir wildlife species like bats, skunks, and raccoons.

Any dog that has been exposed to a wild animal requires immediate veterinary care for wound management but also to assess rabies risks and address public health concerns. Dogs that have bitten a human are also subject to local public health regulations, which often include quarantine or euthanasia. 

There are two major forms of rabies: furious form and paralytic form. Typically, the furious form progresses to the paralytic form, however both forms can exist on their own.

Risk Factors

Rabies, vaccination for rabies, and public health laws regarding both bitten and biting dogs are a concern for all dog owners. Rabies vaccination is highly effective, therefore the disease itself is of little concern to pet parents whose dogs are up to date on vaccination.

Possible Causes

Wildlife species such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats are the most common reservoirs for rabies. When an infected animal bites a dog, the virus is transmitted through the infected animal’s saliva. The virus infects nerves near the bite wound and proceeds towards the brain over a period of 21-80 days. Once the virus reaches the brain, symptoms of rabies develop.

Main Symptoms

The furious form of rabies causes the classic symptoms associated with rabies, such as:

• Aggression • Extreme excitability • SeizuresMuscle tremors • Incoordination (ataxia)

The paralytic form causes widespread weakness and muscle paralysis. Symptoms include:

• Difficulty eating or drinking • Excessive salivationDifficulty breathing • Weakness in the jaw muscles • Paralysis

• Change in the sound of the bark

Testing and Diagnosis

Dogs bitten by, or otherwise exposed to a wild animal, are considered exposed to rabies. Rabies is a significant human health concern, so many of the policies surrounding potentially exposed animals or animals that have bitten humans are mandated by public health organizations. There are no tests to diagnose rabies in live animals. Therefore, the procedure for handling cases in exposed dogs depends on whether the wild animal is available for testing, and the vaccination status of the dog. These regulations vary slightly between jurisdictions. 

Dogs vaccinated for rabies are revaccinated immediately after exposure, regardless of whether the wild animal is available for testing. These dogs must be monitored closely for at least 45 days. The veterinarian managing the case must be alerted if there are any behavioral changes during that period. 

Dogs that have been previously vaccinated for rabies, but are not current on their vaccination, require a series of three vaccinations after exposure. These dogs must be isolated for a 90 day period away from all other mammals, including humans. 

The fate of unvaccinated dogs depends on whether the wild animal is available for testing. If available, the wild animal is euthanized and submitted to a diagnostic laboratory to detect rabies virus. During this period, the dog is placed in strict quarantine.

If the wild animal is not available, unvaccinated dogs are either euthanized immediately and tested for rabies, or placed in strict quarantine for a 6 month period. These dogs must be vaccinated against rabies at least 1 month before they are released from quarantine. 

Rabies is suspected in any dog showing symptoms of behavioral changes, paralysis, or other neurologic disturbances. Rabies is invariably fatal once symptoms develop.

Rabies testing, which requires putting the animal down, is indicated for unvaccinated dogs who have bitten or otherwise exposed a human. In situations where that is not an option, the biting dog is quarantined for a minimum of 10 days. If the dog is still alive after 10 days, rabies infection is unlikely. Quarantine of vaccinated dogs is also appropriate while other diagnostic testing to identify other potential causes of the neurologic symptoms proceeds. 

Any dog that has bitten a human, regardless of vaccination status or wildlife exposure, must be closely monitored for 10 days. If any behavioral changes occur, the dog is presumed to have rabies. Regulations for handling these cases depend on local regulations. Some jurisdictions require immediate euthanasia and testing of unvaccinated dogs if they have bitten a human.

Steps to Recovery

Rabies is nearly 100% fatal once symptoms develop. Death is expected within 10 days of the onset of symptoms.  The incubation period for rabies varies depending on the location of the bite and the amount of virus transmitted during the bite. 20 - 90 days is typical, although reports show incubation periods ranging from 4 days to as long as 6 years. 

Currently vaccinated dogs have the best chance of surviving the infection with appropriate post-exposure treatment protocols. Previously vaccinated but overdue dogs have a good prognosis with appropriate post-exposure treatment. Unvaccinated dogs have an extremely poor prognosis, as prolonged quarantine is often impractical. Usually, these dogs are euthanized and tested for rabies virus, unless the wild animal is available for testing.

Prevention

Rabies is contagious and can infect all mammals, including humans. It is transmitted via exposure to saliva or nervous tissue from infected animals, most commonly as the result of a bite.   Rabies is completely preventable through vaccination. There are very effective vaccines available for dogs, and are considered a core vaccine in many areas. Not only does vaccination help prevent rabies infection, it also prevents euthanasia or prolonged quarantine in the event of a wildlife encounter. Rabies vaccination involves two vaccines, one year apart, followed by booster vaccines every three years.

Strategies to reduce the potential for rabies exposure include:

• Keeping garbage and food in sealed containers • Preventing dogs from interacting with wild animals

• Reporting any wild animals behaving strangely

Is Rabies Common in Dogs?

Rabies is very rare in dogs. There are approximately 50 cases of rabies in dogs per year in the United States.

Typical Treatment

• Post-exposure vaccination • Euthanasia

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