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Rabies in Dogs – Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Picture of dog sitting on steps

Whenever you get a new dog and take him or her to the vet, you’ll be made aware of a vaccination schedule that also includes a vaccine against rabies. Rabies is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It is highly dangerous and contagious, and some say that it has inspired novelists and filmmakers to come up with the idea of zombies.

In this article, we will look at several facts about rabies in dogs, why you should vaccinate your dog against it, how it manifests in real life, how it is transmitted, and whether you can survive after being bitten by an infected dog.

Vaccination – effectiveness and necessity

There are two main situations in which your dog needs to be vaccinated against rabies. One of them is the (possibly unlikely) event that you take him or her for a walk and for some reason, he or she ends up biting a person, whether this involves just piercing the skin or something more severe. It is important to show to that individual the identification and vaccination records of your dog so that you can put their mind at ease because they won’t get rabies from a dog that has been vaccinated against the disease.

As someone who has herself gone through this – I used to feed stray dogs whenever I came across one – I can tell you that it’s not pleasant to have to go through a 5-session vaccination schedule against rabies as a person, just because you don’t know whether the dog that’s bitten you was vaccinated against rabies or not.

The second situation where your dog absolutely must get the rabies vaccine is whether you intend to travel with your pooch abroad. In case you didn’t know, there are countries that are rabies-free and they range from New Zealand to Iceland, and the international protocol requires dog parents to vaccinate their pets against rabies whenever they intend to travel with them to another country. Try to imagine just how much of a disaster it could be for a rabies-free ecosystem such as that in New Zealand to be affected by rabies. Don’t forget – the virus affects all mammals from sheep to humans.

As for the effectiveness of the vaccine, it is, without a doubt, the only method of prevention we have available these days. However, it is only effective if the animal hasn’t caught the disease. That’s why most vaccination plans across the world include biological products against rabies.

How is rabies transmitted?

Because the vaccination is so widespread, rabies is now mainly transmitted by wild animals. The virus doesn’t survive for a long time in the outside environment, so the typical way of your dog getting it is by being bitten by an infected animal.

The virus is also present in the blood, saliva, and urine of infected animals. As unlikely as it might seem, the scenario where your dog goes to inspect the area where an infected fox peed just minutes ago and gets rabies is actually possible. Hunting dogs have a higher risk of getting rabies compared to those who live in the city and never come across a wild animal.

Incubation period

Upon coming in contact with the body fluid of an infected animal or after being bitten, your dog won’t show any symptoms right away, and that’s because it takes up to ten days and even up to one year for the virus to affect the pet’s system. This is called an incubation period.

The site of the infection has a lot to deal with the speed at which the virus reaches the nervous tissue. If your dog wasn’t bit in any body area next to the brain or spinal cord, he or she won’t show any symptoms too soon. The severity of the bite (how deep it is) is another factor that affects the incubation period, as well as the amount of virus that was injected through the bite.

Clinical signs

Many people already know about some of the typical rabies symptoms, and that’s because the disease has been showcased in many movies. A rabid dog can suffer from two forms of the clinical disease – dumb rabies and furious rabies.

Dumb rabies is the more common form, and it consists of initiation of progressive paralysis, with the dog’s face getting distorted and his or her inability to swallow. Some pet parents might think that the animal has swallowed something that’s now stuck in their throat or mouth. If you notice that your dog is behaving strangely, he’s salivating profusely, has difficulty swallowing, and is experiencing facial distortion, do not try to intervene because rabies is transmitted by saliva. So, if you accidentally scratch yourself in your dog’s teeth, you will get rabies.

Furious rabies happens less often compared to the other form, and it involves the dog becoming highly excitable, eating stones or earth, and sometimes behaving very aggressively. Most dogs that have this form die in a violent seizure. Rabid dogs do not have a fear of water – this happens in rabid humans.

Surviving after being bitten by a rabid dog

Very few cases have been documented where humans have survived after being bitten by an animal infected with rabies. If you are bitten, you might have to receive two shots. One of them is an anti-rabies serum, which contains antibodies that can help you fight the disease; the other is the vaccine itself, which will assist you in creating your own antibodies against rabies.

The problem with the vaccine is that it takes at least several days to have an effect, so that’s why the serum is necessary.

There is no treatment for rabies. The serum and vaccine are used to stop the progression of or prevent the disease. However, you should consider that the virus is neurotropic, so it actually prefers the nervous system. What this means is that, if it had the time to create any damage (such as paralysis, for example), the serum would only stop the evolution of the disease. It won’t give you back your health. And it won’t give your dog’s health back if he or she’s the one getting the serum after being bitten.

Quarantine

Since there’s no treatment for rabies at this point in time, dogs that have been bitten by wild animals or dogs that have bitten humans but whose vaccination records are nowhere to be found must be kept in quarantine for at least ten days. As we have noted, the minimal incubation period for the virus is 10 days so, during that time, there should be at least one clinical sign discernible.

The dog needs to be vaccinated right after the biting incident and then could enter a lengthy quarantine period (depending on the local authorities). If you are the dog owner, you might have trouble convincing the authorities to release your dog if he or she hasn’t shown any symptoms, because sometimes, they will consider that it’s safer to euthanize the animal than to wait for a longer time for the clinical signs to show up or let him go and therefore, put everyone in the community at risk.

Prevention

You can’t catch rabies from your dog if he or she went through the whole vaccination plan correctly and if you also make sure to vaccinate your pet regularly. Some vaccines have to be repeated every two years, but as your dog gets older, you might have to take him in for an anti-rabies vaccine every three years. Usually, vets will use polyvalent vaccine plans against several diseases, and these include the anti-rabies one, too.

If you can, try to avoid walking your dog in areas where cases of rabies have been reported in the past. Even if your vaccinated dog can’t get the disease, the whole experience of being bitten by another animal (and one that can’t control itself to do otherwise) can be very traumatizing both for your pet and for yourself. If your dog does get bitten, you’d better have pet insurance because otherwise, your trip to the vet will cost you a lot.

Conclusion

Rabies is a fully preventable disease that is caused by a neurotropic virus. It affects all mammals and can be transmitted through the bite, saliva, blood, or urine of an infected animal. Vaccinate your dog against rabies to make sure that you protect yourself, your family, and your community. Avoid walking your dog off-leash in the woods, and always make sure you carry your dog’s vaccination records on you.

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, so humans can catch it from pets and wild animals. It is highly contagious, and since the key to preventing it is vaccination, always make a point out of respecting the vaccination plan developed by your vet for your dog.

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