Rabies is one of the most dangerous diseases that affects unvaccinated animals. This disease progresses quickly, can spread rapidly if uncontrolled, and is almost always fatal. There are many common misconceptions surrounding rabies, including which treatment options are available and how the disease progresses. In this blog, we look at what rabies is, how it spreads, and the signs of each stage of rabies.
If you come across an animal or human that has contracted rabies, do not make direct contact. Contact a medical or veterinary professional as soon as possible to ask about handling and quarantine protocol.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a preventable viral disease that is most often spread through the bite of an infected animal. Once it has infected a warm-blooded host, rabies progresses rapidly and causes irreversible damage to the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation causes a variety of disabling symptoms, ultimately leading to death.
Can Rabies Spread to Humans?
Yes. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning the disease travels between animals and can also infect humans. 99% of rabies infections in humans result from a bite from an infected dog.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies in Dogs
Rabies is a progressive disease. Once symptoms of rabies appear in dogs, the disease may change rapidly, meaning symptoms may shift as well. In general, common signs and symptoms of rabies include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Heavy drooling
- Staggering or balance issues
- Excessive aggression
- Sudden and unusual fear
- Difficulty breathing
If you’ve seen an animal exhibit any of these symptoms, contact a veterinary professional or animal control official as soon as possible. These trained experts can correctly identify rabies and other diseases and take safety measures for the animal, you, and the public.
Stages of Rabies in Dogs
In dogs, rabies has three stages, each with different symptoms and other factors.
After a bite from an infected animal, rabies progresses in stages. Once the incubation period has ended, the animal enters the first stage, known as the prodromal phase. During this stage of the disease, animals may exhibit behavioral changes. Quiet or anxious animals may become unexpectedly aggressive, and very active animals may exhibit lethargy or extreme fatigue. This stage of the disease typically lasts a few days.
Excitation Stage/Furious Rabies
During this stage of rabies, dogs become extremely excitable, angry, or jittery. Animals in this stage of rabies are hyperreactive, meaning they might bite at anything that comes near them or may run away from humans they know. This stage can last from three to four days and may persist until death.
Paralytic Stage/Dumb Rabies
The final stage of rabies is known as the paralytic stage. This stage of rabies is more common in dogs but is lesser-known to many people.
During the paralytic stage of rabies, dogs may exhibit motor control issues, including extreme difficulty swallowing, choking, and other cough-like issues. For this reason, owners may suspect that the animal has something lodged in its throat.
How Rabies Spreads Among Dogs
Infected animals secret the rabies virus through their salivary glands. This method of viral spread is incredibly effective, as the disease often makes dogs more aggressive than they otherwise would be. In this furious state, dogs are more likely to bite other animals or humans.
Once a bite breaks the skin, the rabies virus enters the bloodstream. Any infected saliva that enters an open wound can spread the disease. Contact with saliva through a mucous membrane may result in rabies infection as well.
How Rabies Incubation Works
The incubation of the rabies virus can vary wildly. Once a rabies infection sets in, it can result in death in as little as a few days. However, the disease can also incubate for a longer period, occasionally lasting multiple years. Cases of rabies that incubate for years are rare, however, and the disease typically appears in three to eight weeks.
How Rabies Is Diagnosed
Outside of highly invasive testing, the primary method of diagnosis for rabies involves quarantine and observation of symptoms.
Animal control and veterinary experts inspect animals suspected of rabies infections for signs of fever, difficulty swallowing, aggression, and other factors. If an animal has received a bite from a potentially infected animal, the bitten animal will be quarantined for at least ten days.
Due to the rapid progression of the disease, this quarantine period is considered sufficient for rabies symptoms to present. If no symptoms are observed ten days after a suspected bite, the situation may be deemed safe.
The only method of definitively diagnosing rabies involves a form of testing that requires samples of brain tissue. For this reason, veterinarians typically only perform rabies testing in dogs post-mortem.
Treatment Options for Rabies
The best treatment for rabies is prevention as there is, unfortunately, no cure. The rabies vaccine gives pets and owners their best chances of preventing infection and reducing the spread of rabies in communities. Rabies is a rapid-progressing and fatal disease. Once symptoms begin, the disease progresses quickly and can lead to coma or death in a matter of days.
In dogs, any treatment for rabies is supportive, meaning those treatments handle symptoms and not the disease itself. Sadly, confirmed cases of rabies in dogs usually result in euthanasia or death.
Find Care Fast
Do you suspect an animal may have rabies? Reach out to a veterinary or animal control professional right away.