Most pet owners know how serious the rabies virus can be. Knowing the importance of staying current on booster shots may be another story. Vaccine boosters are required to ensure that your pet maintains adequate immunity to this fatal disease and that transmission to people and other animals does not occur.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a zoonotic, viral disease meaning it can be transmitted from an infected animal to humans. The viral infection occurs in domestic and wild mammals. It attacks the central nervous system and is secreted in saliva, usually through an animal bite, although it is possible for the virus to be transmitted if an infected animal’s saliva comes in contact with an open wound. Once symptoms occur, rabies is nearly always fatal.

Who Can Get Rabies?

Only mammals, including humans, can carry and transmit rabies. Other species such as birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians cannot become infected nor transmit the virus. The following animals are the most common carriers of rabies:

● Wild animals such as skunks, raccoons, bats, coyotes, foxes, jackals, and mongoose.

● Pets such as cats, dogs, and ferrets.

● Livestock such as horses, goats, sheep, swine, and cattle.

Livestock raised as pets should be vaccinated against rabies. Wild animals are more difficult to vaccinate, making vaccinating pets and livestock crucial in preventing the spread of the disease.

When Should A Pet Be Vaccinated for Rabies?

Vaccinating pets and other domestic animals against rabies is the best way to prevent transmission. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contact with infected bats is the leading cause of human rabies deaths in this country.

How Long Can You Wait to Vaccinate Your Pet for Rabies?

Dogs and cats should be initially vaccinated for rabies no earlier than 12 weeks of age but no later than 6 months of age. Animals are considered protected 28 days after the first vaccine is administered. Since the initial vaccination may not offer life-long protection, boosters must be given at established intervals to ensure continuous immunity. No waiting period is required for booster shots to be 100% effective. Failure to adhere to rabies vaccination requirements in pets could be punishable by local and state laws.  

What Are the Signs of Rabies in Pets?

When a pet is infected with rabies, the virus travels from the location of the infection (usually a bite wound) to the central nervous system, eventually leading to neurologic signs. The incubation period—the time between exposure and onset of signs—may last for weeks or months, depending on the distance from the bite to the brain, the strain of the rabies virus, and any existing immunity. It is possible to attempt to treat rabies during the incubation period, however, once symptoms appear, the disease is always fatal.

Signs of Rabies in Animals

In animals, signs may include the following:

● Behavioral changes (unusually aggressive or calm)

● Progressive paralysis

● Lethargy

Other, more specific signs may include excessive drooling, staggering, seizures, and difficulty swallowing. Any animal with unexplained behavioral changes or paralysis should be taken to a veterinarian for an examination.

While aggressive behavior is a hallmark of the rabies virus, some rabid animals conversely become more friendly or calm. If you observe an unusually tame wild animal, assume it has rabies and keep your distance. Similarly, when nocturnal animals appear during daylight hours, this could be a red flag for rabies. Again, stay away from the animal and contact animal control authorities.

Mammals affected by rabies may exhibit any of the above signs in addition to self-mutilation behaviors, light sensitivity, or other neurologic signs. If you observe any of these signs in your animal, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Signs of Rabies in Humans

In humans, the initial signs of rabies are typically headache, weakness, fever, and anxiety. Because rabies is difficult to diagnose before symptoms appear, most diagnoses are presumptive and made based on reported contact with an infected animal. Other symptoms may include:

● Tingling sensations around the animal bite

● Dilated pupils

● Sensitivity to sound, light, and temperature changes

● Seizures

● Hallucinations

● Hydrophobia (fear of water)

Rabies typically progresses from paralysis to coma, and eventually, death in both humans and animals. Diagnosing rabies in animals is performed post-mortem with a specific brain tissue analysis.

What Should You Do if You or Your Pet Are Exposed to Rabies?

If a pet or person is exposed to a potentially rabid animal, there are early intervention steps that may slow the progress of the disease.

1. If a bite wound was sustained, wash and rinse the affected area with soap and water for at least 15 minutes.

2. Flush the wound copiously with water or a dilute povidone-iodine solution.

3. Contact your veterinarian or physician as soon as possible for further instructions.

. If your doctor deems it necessary, you may receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent the disease from developing. Unfortunately, no USDA-licensed post-exposure treatment is available for unvaccinated animals.

What to Do If Your Animal is Potentially Exposed to Rabies

If possible, complete the steps above for early intervention, being sure to report the rabid animal to the local animal control authorities. Depending on the situation, your veterinarian may recommend one of the following:

● If you have proof that your pet’s rabies vaccination status is up to date, your pet will likely be revaccinated and kept under owner observation for 45 days.

● If you do not have proof of your pet’s rabies vaccine but believe they have been vaccinated in the past, local public health authorities will be consulted for guidance.

● Unvaccinated animals that are exposed to rabies should be euthanized immediately.

● Animals other than dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock that may have been exposed to rabies should be euthanized immediately.

Pets who are not up to date on their rabies vaccination are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Your veterinarian will help ensure that all applicable regulations are followed.

What to Do If Your Pet Bites Another Person or Animal

Urge the affected person or owner to contact either their physician (if they were bitten) or their veterinarian (if their pet was bitten) immediately. Owners are responsible for following local laws regarding their animals. In most cases, if your animal bites another person or animal, owners should:

● Contact their veterinarian to confirm their pet’s vaccination status.

● Report the incident to the local health and animal control departments.

Depending on local ordinances and your pet’s vaccination status, your pet may be isolated or confined for a period of time (typically ten days) for rabies observation. Sometimes, pets are confined at home under direct supervision from their owner. In these cases, be sure to monitor your pet closely for any possible rabies signs, reporting any abnormalities immediately to your veterinarian and local health department.

If your pet is confined at home after biting someone, do not let it wander, go outside off-leash, or come in contact with any other people or animals. Even if your outdoor space is enclosed, do not let your pet outside unsupervised.

What to Do If You Are Bitten by an Animal

If you are bitten by an animal and potentially exposed to rabies, be sure to follow the early intervention steps described above and contact your physician immediately. You will need to explain the circumstances under which you were bitten. Providing as much information about the incident as possible helps medical professionals determine the likelihood of rabies exposure. Since rabies cannot be confirmed in live animals, a presumptive diagnosis of rabies in humans is often based on anecdotal information.

Capturing the suspected rabid animal provides the best outcome for you and the surrounding community. However, do not attempt to capture or contain the animal yourself. Instead, memorize as many details as possible about the animal’s appearance, behavior, and location. These details can be relayed to animal control authorities, who should be left to address and capture the animal.

After evaluating the wound and the circumstances surrounding the incident, your doctor may begin a regimen of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This treatment involves:

● An initial injection of rabies immune globulin (HRIG) and a rabies vaccine. Ideally, these injections are given as soon as possible after the exposure.

● A series of three additional rabies vaccinations given on days 3, 7, and 14 after exposure. These injections help your body develop an adequate immune response to fight the virus.

The key to a successful outcome is prompt diagnosis and treatment. As with animals, once symptoms appear in humans, the virus is usually fatal.

Is Rabies a Health Concern Today?

According to the CDC, the United States had 25 reported cases of rabies in humans between 2009 and 2018. Of those cases, only two survived. Although rabies vaccination and animal control programs have reduced the number of human cases of rabies in the United States, it is still considered one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rabies kills an estimated 160 people a day or 59,000 per year. About 15 million people are treated for rabies after being exposed to possibly infected animals every year.

Humanitarian Impact

The most impoverished regions of the world suffer the greatest threat of rabies. Africa and Asia have the highest rate of exposure due to the low rate of vaccination among domestic dogs and the limited availability of post-exposure treatments. These regions report more than 95% of all rabies deaths, with most cases due to dog bites. In most affected countries, rabies is under-reported because healthcare is limited, and many victims die outside of healthcare facilities.

Economic Impact

The Global Alliance for Rabies Control estimates a significant global economic impact as a result of unmanaged rabies infections. The organization projects that the economic loss will reach $8.6 billion (US) with the losses falling primarily on Africa (36.4%) and Asia (59.6%). The direct impact comes from losing a productive workforce due to premature death (55%) andpost-exposure treatment expenditures (20%).

Global Impact

Although developed countries have few cases of human rabies, the rabies virus still poses a threat to the world. Animals do not respect borders, and infected animals can move into more developed regions. Individuals visiting countries with high incidents of rabies may return home, bringing the virus with them. Rabies is a global disease with a worldwide impact.

How to Prevent Rabies

Rabies is 100% preventable through vaccination, however, eliminating rabies in non-domesticated animals through vaccination is logistically impossible. In the United States, an Oral Rabies Vaccination (ORV) program has been in place since the 1990s. This program places oral vaccines into bait that is left in the wilderness for animals to eat. The program has successfully eliminated certain strains of the virus in states such as Texas and Arizona.

It’s wise to consult the CDC website before traveling abroad for information regarding rabies in your area. In some instances, the CDC may recommend receiving a rabies vaccine before traveling to prevent infection and spread of the disease. Vaccination is highly recommended for individuals traveling to rural or uninhabited regions where rabies is present.

Pet owners should vaccinate their pets, including dogs, cats, and ferrets, as soon as it is safe to do so. Livestock being raised as pets should also be vaccinated as well as horses. In addition to maintaining up-to-date vaccination schedules, pet owners should adhere to the following guidelines:

● Do not let pets roam free. Keep cats and ferrets indoors and supervise dogs when they are outside.

● Do not leave garbage or pet food outside which may attract raccoons and other potentially rabid wild or stray animals..

● Do not keep wild animals as pets. In many locations, this may be punishable by law.

● Do not approach or get too close to wild animals, but rather observe them from a distance.

● Report unusual wild animal behavior to a local animal control department.

In the United States, bats have become a primary reservoir in transmitting rabies. Make sure you do not have locations in and around your property that could harbor bats.

Penny Paws Animal Clinic

We treat all of our patients with compassionate care. That’s why we are strong supporters of rabies prevention. There’s no need for animals to suffer the effects of a rabies infection when the disease is completely vaccine-preventable. As a leading provider of high-quality and affordable veterinary care, Penny Paws Animal Clinic is committed to ensuring your pet has a long and healthy life.

If you have questions or need to schedule a vaccination appointment, contact us. We are happy to answer your questions about any of our services.