Rabies in Dogs and Cats

What is rabies?

Koen, the Rabies Dog
Koen, the Rabies Dog 
It’s a devastating viral disease affecting all mammals, including dogs, cats, wild animals and people. The rabies virus attacks the brain, causing severe swelling, pain and death. It’s one of the oldest known diseases, with reported dangers of a rabid dog bite recorded as far back as the 23rd century, BC. Rabies is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most countries are affected, with the exception of a few island countries.

How is it transmitted?

When an infected animal bites another mammal (dog, cat or person) and transmits the disease. In North American, the skunk, fox, raccoon and bat are primary sources of infection.

In Europe, foxes are the main culprit. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, stray dogs cause the widest danger. Human infection and fatalities are more common there.

How long is the rabies incubation period?

The incubation period (between infection and symptoms beginning to appear) can vary from 10 days to a year or longer.

In dogs, it’s usually 2 weeks to 4 months.
In cats, it’s about 3-8 weeks.

The speed at which symptoms appear depends upon the bite severity, how much virus is injected by the bite, and the infection site-- the closer the bite is to the brain and spinal cord, the faster the virus reaches the nervous system

What are the symptoms of rabies in dogs and cats?

The disease progresses in stages:

English: Close-up of a dog's face during late-...
Close-up of a dog's face during late-stage "dumb" paralytic rabies. Animals with "dumb" rabies appear depressed, lethargic, and uncoordinated. Gradually they become completely paralyzed. When their throat and jaw muscles are paralyzed, the animals will drool and have difficulty swallowing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prodromal phase: The dog or cat undergoes a noticeable change in behavior. Quiet pets become agitated and active pets become anxious or withdrawn.

Furious rabies: This occurs when the rabid pet becomes highly excitable, displays a depraved appetite (eating and chewing stones, earth and rubbish) and drools saliva excessively. This is a very dangerous time when the pet is most likely to bite its owner or other animals.

Paralytic stage or “dumb rabies”: Paralysis sets in and the rabid animal may not be able to eat and drink. The pet finally dies in a violent seizure or becomes comatose and dies.

In cats, the pupils are widely dilated through all phases.

Rabies may be transmitted by saliva, so take care when examining your pet if you see these signs!

How is rabies diagnosed on dogs and cats? 

Rabies cannot be diagnosed in a living animal; it’s only diagnosed post mortem (after death) by examining the brain.

What is the treatment for rabies?

There is no treatment for a dog or cat with rabies. If rabies is suspected, the pet has to be kept in isolation and prevented from escaping or injuring someone.

Your veterinarian is required by law to notify the local and state or provincial animal disease regulatory authorities, who determine the steps necessary to protect public health.

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

Pets and people can survive naturally under rare circumstances, such as when there’s very little rabies virus present in the rabid animal’s saliva.

However, as Louis Pasteur first revealed, it’s possible to interrupt disease progression by using early post-bite serum. This rabies antiserum (rabies vaccine). It stimulates the bitten animal to develop its own neutralizing antibodies to the rabies virus.

When should my dog or cat be vaccinated… and is it effective?

A rabies vaccine will protect your pet and is required by law.Today’s rabies vaccines for dogs, cats, horses and ferrets are very safe and effective as protection against the rabies virus.

In North America, all dogs and cats ages 12-16 weeks must be vaccinated (by law).
Rabies re-vaccination boosters are also required.

Your veterinarian will give you booster intervals and can provide you with a “rabies license” showing proof of vaccination.

As a post-bite strategy, rabies vaccines are only effective if given before the virus enters the nervous system. 

Can I catch rabies?

Yes, rabies can be transmitted from a rabid animal to people through a bite. Other than a bite, the saliva of the infected animal may also pass infection, but only for a limited time.
The good news is — your veterinarian is your best source of rabies protection. 

Together, you and your vet will develop a rabies protection plan for the life of your dog or cat.
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