Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. It affects mammals and spreads through the saliva when an infected animal bites or comes in contact with the wound of another animal or human.

The disease is uncommon in domestic animals, but about 200 cats and dogs in the United States contract rabies every year. Wild animals like skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats are typical carriers of the virus and are often responsible for transmission to domestic pets. If not treated before symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

Signs of Rabies in Dogs and Cats

The incubation period of rabies is usually around 6 to 12 weeks after the virus has entered the animal’s body. However, symptoms can manifest in 5 days, or after more than 2 years.

Signs develop quicker when an animal is exposed closer to the brain and bites inflicted directly on the skin are more dangerous than through heavy clothing.

A normally friendly dog or cat can become restless, irritable, and aggressive after infection with the rabies virus. Alternatively, the animal can become unusually affectionate.

Physical signs of a rabid animal may include fever, hydrophobia (fear of water), excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, seizures, and staggering. As the disease progresses, pets can become overly reactive to stimuli like sound, light, and movement.

An affected pet may look for a dark, quiet corner to hide and turn hostile when approached. During the final stages of the disease, the animal loses muscle control and becomes paralyzed before finally succumbing to the disease.

There are two clinical presentations of rabies in mammals:

Furious Rabies

This type of rabies is more common in dogs than cats. With the furious form of the disease, an animal may change their usual disposition and become too friendly or, conversely, overly shy. They may prefer secluded areas or charge at things unexpectedly.

After about two days, affected animals often become restless or begin wandering around. They are more likely to bite animals like cattle or other dogs. Eventually, animals with furious rabies become irritable, stop eating and drinking, and die.

Paralytic or “Dumb” Rabies

Dumb rabies is characterized by progressive paralysis of the body. When the lower jaw becomes paralyzed, the mouth may hang open and you may see excessive drooling. Paralysis of the whole body then follows, and the animal dies shortly after. A dog with dumb rabies may also become unusually affectionate to its owners.

Cats affected by rabies will often self-seclude. They may become aggressive or attack other animals or people. Their voices may become hoarse before paralysis and death occur.

Does Rabies Cause Hydrophobia in Pets?

If your pet sustains an injury after interacting with another animal and you suspect rabies, call your veterinarian for immediate guidance. The animal will most likely not survive if you wait for clinical signs like excessive drooling and other neurologic signs to occur.

Hydrophobia, the fear of water, is a classic sign of rabies in humans. Although it is not commonly reported in dogs or cats, it is possible for pets to develop this bizarre sign as a result of rabies infection.

Why Does Rabies Cause Hydrophobia?

. Hydrophobia results from pharyngeal muscle spasms that make it difficult for a rabies victim to swallow.

For that reason, rabies doesn’t necessarily cause hydrophobia, but rather, the fear and inability to swallow makes rabies victims avoid drinking water and swallowing saliva. These muscle spasms also partially explain why dogs and cats affected by rabies may drool excessively from their mouths.

When the muscles responsible for enabling and coordinating swallowing fail to work, affected people and pets may become afraid of even. the thought of drinking water, leading to spasms. Swallowing difficulty is known as dysphagia.

How Does Rabies Causes Dysphagia

Rabies is a neurotropic virus in that it neurons, including those necessary for respiration and swallowing. This is because rabies attacks specific areas of the brainstem (medulla), known as central pattern generators (CPGs). CPGs are neural networks that generate particular patterns when a person or animal chews, swallows and breathes. When rabies takes hold, a group of nuclei known as nucleus tractus solitary of the dorsal group are affected, compromising the respiratory and pre-swallowing cycles. As a result, affected people and animals experience intense spasms when swallowing, possibly  

leading to avoidance of food and water altogether.

How Rabies Disrupts Respiration

The medulla of the brainstem has a group of interneurons called the preBötzinger complex. This cluster is critical for the generation of respiratory rhythms in mammals. It sends signals to the hypoglossal nucleus, which in turn controls respiratory rhythmicity.

When the rabies virus infects the brainstem, the preBötzinger complex can no longer communicate with the hypoglossal nucleus. As a result, it interrupts respiratory rhythms.

Can a Domestic Cat or Dog Pass Rabies to Humans?

It is possible for pet cats and dogs to pass rabies to their owners. For transmission to occur, the infected pet’s saliva must come into contact with a wound or a mucous membrane such as through the mouth, nose, or eye..

Animals primarily transmit the virus to human beings through bites. While it is possible to acquire rabies through a scratch, this mode of transmission is rare.

If you think a rabid animal has bitten or scratched you, thoroughly clean the affected area with soap and water, rinse the area copiously with water or an appropriate disinfectant, and contact your doctor immediately.

Do not attempt to capture a potentially rabid animal. Rather, leave this to your local animal control agency, who you should contact right away. Take care to remember what the animal looked like and where it was located so you can describe this to your doctor and animal control authority.

What Are the Stages of Rabies Progress in Humans?

Rabies typically progresses in five distinct stages after its introduction into the human body:

#1. Incubation Phase

This stage is characterized by the time between when a virus enters the body and when clinical signs appear. The incubation period for rabies is anywhere from 5 days to more than 2 years, with 30 to 90 days on average.

#2. Prodrome Stage

During this stage, affected people begin exhibiting clinical signs. Flu-like symptoms are common, including:

● Fever

● Sore throat

● Coughing

● Headache

● Nausea and vomiting

● Anxiety

● General malaise

These symptoms, which may worsen with time, can last for about 2 to 10 days.

#3. Acute Neurologic Period

Central nervous system signs begin manifesting during this stage of rabies infection. The following symptoms may be observed:

● Rigid neck muscles or partial paralysis

● Involuntary muscle twitching

● Confusion and hallucinations

● Insomnia and nightmares

● Drooling and foaming in the mouth

● Convulsions

● Photophobia (fear of light)

● Difficulty swallowing

● Priapism (enduring penile erection in males)

● Difficulty breathing

● Rapid and inconsistent breathing (usually toward the end of the neurologic stage)

#4. Coma

As neurologic signs and paralysis progress, coma soon follows and prognosis declines.

#5. Death

Death usually occurs shortly after the onset of a coma due to respiratory failure. Very, very rarely, patients recover from clinical rabies.

How is Rabies Diagnosed?

Identifying rabies transmission immediately after a potential exposure isn’t always easy.. Laboratory tests on the host’s saliva or skin may eventually lead to a rabies diagnosis, but serial tests may be required and false positives or negatives are possible. Additionally, many diagnostics are only reliable during specific periods of infection. Due to the challenges in using laboratory tests, clinicians rely highly on the patient’s travel and animal contact history when diagnosing rabies.

Currently, the only reliable way to diagnose rabies in animals is by analyzing the brain tissue, which can only be performed post-mortem.

Unfortunately, it may be too late to treat rabies by the time the disease is confirmed. Therefore, people or animals with possible rabies exposure should immediately begin prophylactic treatment.

Is There a Treatment for Rabies?

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is the immediate treatment of choice for people who’ve come into contact with a suspected rabid animal. Its purpose is to prevent the virus from entering the central nervous system by helping the body mount a robust immune response.

Rabies PEP involves:

● Washing and disinfecting the exposed skin

● The administration of rabies immunoglobulin

● The administration of a series of rabies vaccines

What Are the Categories of Exposure and Recommended PEP?

Category 1

This occurs when a person comes into contact with an animal or its saliva without breaking the skin. Examples could be touching or feeding an animal or allowing an animal to lick intact skin. Washing the exposed skin is sufficient treatment, as these encounters cannot expose a person to rabies

Category 2

The next level of exposure can include minor scratches with no bleeding or nibbling of uncovered skin. Such exposure requires washing as above along with immediate rabies vaccination.

Category 3

Transdermal bites and scratches resulting in broken skin or contact with saliva from the suspected animal at a mucous membrane constitute a category three exposure. The recommended PEP measures include thorough wound washing, vaccination, and rabies immunoglobulin administration.

The risk of exposure to rabies is typically higher when the:

● Suspected animal is a known rabies carrier

● Attack was unprovoked

● Animal in question appears unwell

● Suspected animal displays abnormal behavior

● Exposure occurs in a region where rabies is common

● Exposed animal or human hasn’t been vaccinated for rabies

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports rabies prevention through dog and cat vaccination and animal bite prevention programs. When an animal’s vaccination status is questionable, it’s best to initiate PEP. This is common in areas where dog vaccination programs are inadequate or unregulated due to the lack of resources.

How Can I Prevent Rabies in My Dog or Cat?

Rabies can not only quickly kill an infected dog or cat, but once signs are present, there is little that veterinarians can do to treat this fatal disease.. Additionally, diagnosing rabies in live animals is impossible. Therefore, it’s essential to proactively protect your animals from the virus.

Here is how to protect your dog or cat from rabies:

#1. Vaccinate Your Pet

The best way to prevent your pet from acquiring rabies is through regular vaccination. Most states regulate rabies vaccination for domestic animals such as dogs, cats, and ferrets.

The rabies vaccine helps your pet in multiple ways. It not only offers protection from the disease, but if your dog bites or attacks someone, it could prevent an isolation period or even euthanasia. When a domestic animal attack occurs, the first question will be whether the animal is up-to-date on its rabies vaccine.

If your pet has adhered to the recommended vaccine schedule, you can rest assured there is no risk of rabies transmission. If they are not up-to-date or have never received a rabies vaccine, the authorities can quarantine or even euthanize your dog or cat. A ten-day isolation period under veterinary supervision is not uncommon for dogs that have bitten people.

If you suspect your dog or cat has come into contact with a rabid animal, a veterinarian can administer a booster vaccine to prevent infection. Depending on your pet’s vaccination status, they can also recommend that you isolate your pet at home to monitor for signs of rabies.

If the animal develops signs of the disease, immediate euthanasia is recommended to protect other people and pets. If necessary, a veterinarian will take brain samples from the suspected pet for post-mortem examination.

#2. Avoid Wild Animals

Another way to prevent exposure to rabies is by avoiding wild animals. Dogs and cats that are allowed to roam free are at a higher risk of coming into contact with wild animals and, hence, rabies.. Walk your pet on a leash and steer clear of strange animals within your surroundings.

How Should I Respond to Potentially Rabid Wild Animals?

Have you seen a wild animal behaving in a manner that mimics rabies? Call your local animal control or health department immediately. Don’t attempt to capture the animal yourself. Instead, stay away, warn others around the area, and notify the authorities.

Similarly, if you think your dog or cat has come into contact with a potentially rabid animal, contact your veterinarian or local health department. If your pet sustained an injury, follow your veterinarian’s guidance regarding wound cleaning and post-exposure vaccination. Remember, you can contract the virus as well, so take care to use disposable gloves when handling your exposed pet.

A report should be filed with your local health department for any potential rabies exposure. Advise the proper authorities regarding the description and location of the suspected animal so they can remove it from the area, preventing exposure to other domestic animals and people.

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