Anyone who has ever lived in a rural area, had a pet, or simply turned on the news at some point in their life, has heard the term rabies. It’s a scary type of illness that can make animals extremely dangerous – and it spreads quickly. Dog owners especially have to be concerned about rabies, because a dog with rabies can turn violent, and it’s often hard to tell right away if a sick dog is in need of help, or if you should keep your distance.
This in-depth guide to rabies in dogs will help you understand everything you need to know about this illness, including:
- What is rabies?
- What causes rabies?
- Common rabies symptoms in dogs.
- How rabies is diagnosed.
- Available rabies treatment for dogs.
- How to prevent rabies in dogs.
If you have a dog or live around dogs, this guide is essential knowledge to keep yourself and your pets safe. Unless you live in Hawaii, Australia, or Antarctica, rabies has been reported in the area where you live. And it affects millions of animals all around the world every year.
What is Rabies and What Causes Rabies?
Rabies is a viral illness that attacks the central nervous system and brain of mammals. The illness grows very quickly in the body because the cells of the virus replicate in the fibers of the nervous system, which then spreads the illness all over the entire body. This illness is very contagious and is primarily spread by the contact of bodily fluids, particularly saliva. Bites are the common method of transfer. If an infected animal’s saliva comes into contact with broken skin or an open wound, the virus can be transferred.
Rabies can be contracted by any mammal, including humans. Dogs are often infected when they come into contact with wild animals and stray dogs with rabies. Raccoons, bats, possums, and skunks are common carriers of rabies. Other animals that can carry rabies include:
- Woodchucks and other small mammals
If you live in an area that is highly populated by wild animals, or you are going camping or hiking in an area with wild animals, you are at a higher risk for coming into contact with rabies-infected animals. If your dog is frequently out roaming fields or the woods, or they go hiking or camping with you, you will need to train them not to approach wild animals if you can – or go with them to keep your eye on them.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the faster rabies can travel the nervous system to the brain, the faster the virus will grow deadly. If a dog is bitten in the neck, or rabies is transferred through a wound that is on the head, nearer the brain, the virus will spread much faster.
Common Rabies Symptoms
If a dog has rabies, the symptoms may not appear for about a month after being infected. The first few symptoms may simply look like a simple cold or even canine influenza. It’s common to see a dog with a fever, vomiting, seeming confused or agitated, or having difficulty with swallowing. As time goes on, symptoms may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive drooling or foaming at the mouth
- Being afraid of water (Because a dog has difficulty swallowing, they may act adverse to water for fear of drowning.)
- Partial paralysis, especially of the jaw
- Eating non-food items
- A change in the sound of their bark
- Becoming very uncoordinated
- Becoming unusually shy
- Very aggressive behaviors towards any other animal
- Hallucinations (You may see a dog getting aggressive towards “thin air”, for example.)
Symptoms can start showing up as early as ten days after being bitten, but it can take up to two full months for some dogs to start showing symptoms.
How is Rabies Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, there is no way to test an animal for the rabies virus except posthumously. The only way to be absolutely sure that a dog has rabies is to test a sample of brain tissue, which can only be extracted after death.
In order to diagnose a live animal, veterinarians rely on the presence of symptoms, and their experience, to tell them if a dog has rabies. The symptoms of rabies are fairly unique, and when they present at the same time, it’s a fairly good chance that a dog has contracted rabies. In order to perform this type of diagnosis, a dog that may have rabies will be quarantined in a kennel for several days and observed for symptoms. This is the only accepted means of diagnosing a living animal with rabies.
Rabies Treatments for Dogs
There is no cure or treatment for the rabies virus in dogs. The virus is not known to be controlled by any medication or procedure at all for dogs. When a dog has rabies, they are a hazard to all other dogs, cats, animals, and people around them. Therefore, most dogs that are suspected to have rabies are euthanized for the safety of all people and pets in the area. It is a very sad situation, and it’s why it’s so important to work towards preventing rabies in your dog.
In some areas of the world, a quarantine of up to six months for an unvaccinated dog to ensure that the dog doesn’t have the virus any longer may be an option. However, if your dog has been vaccinated and was bitten by an animal with rabies, they are usually only quarantined for a matter of 10 days to ensure they haven’t contracted the virus.
Rabies Prevention for Dogs
The number one thing you can do to protect your dog from rabies is to keep their rabies vaccination up to date. While we do not have a known medication to cure rabies, the rabies vaccination has been shown to prevent a dog from contracting the virus in the first place. If you live in a city or urban area, rabies vaccination is probably a mandatory requirement for having a dog or cat in the city limits. All dogs that are older than three months old should be getting regular vaccinations against rabies.
Here’s a very important reason to keep your dog vaccinated even if you think they’ll never come into contact with a wild animal: In many cities and urban areas, if a dog bites a person, the law will require them to be euthanized and tested for rabies – to protect the person bitten – unless the owner can prove that the dog was vaccinated against rabies within the past year. So even if your dog never does come into contact with infected animals, having a vaccination can still save their life.
Another thing you can do to prevent a dog from getting rabies is not to allow them to roam freely in rural areas or the woods. Many dogs that live in country settings are allowed to wander the yard, where small animals like skunks and possums could easily be found. It is important to keep a dog contained in an area where you keep the grass mowed, and know that the wild animals aren’t likely to show up. It’s also important to keep a dog away from livestock if you suspect that any of them may be carrying the virus. If your dog is a hunting dog, be sure they are trained to find and tree animals, but not to attack or bite them, for their own safety. And always be sure that your dog is being walked on a leash when out and about together.
If you are concerned about wild animals getting into your home, or an outdoor shelter where your dog hangs out, there are things you can do to safeguard the place against critters. For example, stuff or cover holes that animal could crawl through, caulk any tiny cracks (mice can crawl through extremely small cracks), check window and door screens for holes, and cover any openings like chimneys and attic vents.
Your local wildlife department or animal control office should be able to help you find effective ways to get rid of pests like raccoons or skunks. If you frequently find animals or road kill near your home, contact these officials to have the area’s wildlife population controlled. If you do find road kill that you don’t want your dog to get to, and you must clean it up yourself, always use gloves to put the remains in a box, and then seal the box very securely with duct tape or something similar. Don’t throw the remains away – instead, contact the local animal control or health department for rabies testing if you are concerned your dog may have come into contact with the animal.
If Your Dog Has Come Into Contact with Rabies…
If your dog has been bitten by an animal that you think may have rabies, the first thing you should do is head to the vet. If you live in an area with a health department, you will need to report the incident to them should the vet determine that it is likely that your dog has contracted rabies. At that point, the quarantine routine will begin to ensure your dog is healthy, and the vet will administer a rabies vaccination – even if your dog is already vaccinated – as a method of helping boost any vaccination that they have previously had.
It is very important that you don’t handle your dog without gloves, and keep your hands and the dog away from your face during this time. For the first several hours after being bitten, the rabies virus is still hanging out on your dog’s skin.
Whether your dog is under quarantine or not, you should closely observe them for the next two months. If they don’t show symptoms of the illness within eight weeks, you are likely in the clear. However, if any symptoms begin to appear at that time, head back to the vet.
What If You Get Bitten by a Rabid Dog?
If your dog may have rabies and bites you, or you come into contact with a rabid animal, you will need to go to the doctor immediately. Unlike canine rabies, there are ways to cure rabies in humans. You will need to begin having a series of shots injected so that the virus doesn’t spread. Be sure to report the animal that you were bitten by so that no other people are harmed by the animal.
One important tip for humans is to be sure never to approach an unfamiliar animal, especially if they are acting very oddly. For example, if an animal that is mostly nocturnal, like a bat, is out and very active during the day, don’t approach them. Or if a wild animal is acting as though they are tamed and want to come up to you, don’t handle them.
The Final Word
Rabies is a highly contagious virus that is very dangerous but is thankfully only spread through contact. If you are careful to keep your dog away from wild animals, and you keep your dog vaccinated, there is a good chance you can avoid exposing your dog to the illness at all.
Unfortunately, if a dog catches rabies, there aren’t many options. The dog can be quarantined for an extended period of time to ensure that they aren’t spreading the virus until the virus wears off. The only treatment that can be offered during this time is treatment to manage symptoms – there is no known treatment for the virus itself.
In the event that a dog bites a person and it is suspected that the dog has rabies, it is more likely that the local authorities will require the dog be euthanized. The best way to protect your dog from this and from the pain of the illness is to ensure that they are vaccinated every year. Keep this vaccination up to date to keep your pup safe!