As pet parents, we want to take the best care of our pet’s health. It’s essential to be well-informed about conditions that may affect our furry friends and what we can do to protect them from illness or injury. Rabies vaccinations are a common part of your pet’s veterinary care, but what exactly is rabies? Read on to learn more about what causes rabies in dogs, how to tell if your dog has rabies, and when to be concerned about potential rabies exposure.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus that affects the neurological system (brain and spinal cord) of mammals, including pets and humans. While rabies in domestic animals and humans is rare and easily preventable in modern times, mention of the virus can still invoke fear in our minds. This is because rabies, though uncommon, is nearly always fatal once symptoms appear. There is currently no cure for rabies, and it can cause frightening, unpredictable behavior in both wild animals and domestic pets. It’s also notoriously difficult to diagnose rabies in a living animal, so those who exhibit symptoms of the rabies virus are usually euthanized, as they pose a public health risk.

How is Rabies Transmitted in Dogs?

The rabies virus is typically spread through the saliva of an infected animal. Because affected animals secrete large amounts of the virus in their saliva and they tend to be aggressive, bite wounds are the most common route of transmission. However, an infection may also occur if this saliva enters a mucous membrane or an open wound like a scratch or cut. Unlike some viruses, rabies is not typically transmitted through blood, urine, or feces.

The most common carriers of rabies are wild animals, including bats, foxes, skunks, and raccoons. Though it’s rare in both species, domestic cats carry the virus at a higher rate than domestic dogs. This means that while you need to be vigilant about keeping your dog away from wild animals, it’s important to remember that other pets can be at risk too. Steer clear of any wild animal displaying strange behavior such as nocturnal animals being awake during the day, staggering, drooling, or unusual aggression.

Which Dogs are Most at Risk for Rabies?

Certain dogs may be at a greater risk for rabies than others. For example, if your dog is allowed to roam unsupervised over a large area of your property, there’s a greater chance for them to come into contact with an infected wild animal or get into a fight with an infected dog or cat. In addition, dogs who aren’t vaccinated for rabies are at a higher risk of contracting the disease, as their body has not had the opportunity to mount an immune response to the virus. This is why it’s a great idea to provide regular veterinary care for your dog, keep them on a leash when they’re outside, and make sure they stay indoors when you are unable to monitor them. In addition, if you have domestic cats, keep them indoors to prevent them from contracting the virus and spreading it to your dog.

What Does Rabies Look Like in Dogs?

When you ask someone how to tell if an animal has rabies, the first thing they may think of is drooling or foaming at the mouth, but this is just one of many ways that rabies can present itself. Dogs with rabies may act unusually fearful, aggressive, apprehensive, or restless, and they may attack humans, animals, or inanimate objects, even when unprovoked. These symptoms will usually progress, resulting in paralysis, seizures, and sudden death.

One important thing to look for is an open wound through which the rabies virus may have been transmitted. Watch for areas that your dog may be licking, biting, or chewing. If your dog has a thick coat, it may be difficult to locate wounds on the skin. Remember, since rabies is usually transmitted through bite wounds, monitor for areas that resemble this type of injury. Typically, an animal bite will have two punctures in the skin from each canine (fang) tooth and possibly punctures from other teeth as well.

What if You Think Your Dog Has Been Exposed to Rabies?

If you think your dog has been exposed to rabies, call your veterinarian immediately for an emergency appointment. Provided your pet has already been vaccinated for rabies, your veterinarian will administer an additional vaccine to boost immunity. Unvaccinated dogs with rabies exposure may require quarantine for up to six months to monitor for signs of disease, or as directed by local and state health officials. If your veterinarian suspects or confirms a case of rabies, it should be reported to your state’s head veterinarian. Time is of the essence when it comes to rabies exposure. Unfortunately, as soon as an animal begins displaying symptoms, it’s likely too late for treatment. It’s absolutely essential to seek veterinary care as soon as possible after exposure to give your dog the highest chance of survival.

If you believe that your dog may have been bitten or attacked by a rabid animal, keep in mind that the virus can live on your dog’s skin for up to two hours after the initial incident. If you must handle your dog during this time, wear gloves to prevent exposing yourself to infection and keep them away from any other pets in your house. Contact your physician and follow their instructions. Rabies is a human medical urgency, and your doctor may recommend postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) to protect you.

While it’s important to take care of both you and your pet first, it’s also necessary to remember that, if the rabid animal that attacked your dog is still at large, they pose a risk to other people and animals. If you suspect there is a rabid animal in your area, get in touch with your local animal control agency, who has the experience and tools needed to find the animal before it has a chance to infect others. An animal infected with rabies may transmit the virus days before they start displaying signs, so contact your vet and animal control officer, even if the animal in question is behaving normally.

Even if you aren’t completely sure that your dog has been exposed to rabies, it’s always better to play it safe. Given the mortality rate of the virus in both animals and humans, a quick and painless rabies booster is definitely preferable to potentially watching your pet suffer from a painful and fatal illness.

How Do You Know if Your Dog Has Rabies?

If there’s a chance your dog was exposed to rabies there are a few things you can be on the lookout for. Pet parents know their pups best, so if your dog starts to exhibit any strange behavior and was in contact with a wild animal, it may be a warning sign. Though, it’s important to keep in mind, that rabies signs often don’t show up until weeks after infection and may take as long as six months to appear while the virus travels from the site of infection to the brain.

Therefore, it’s essential to stay vigilant when your dog is spending time outside and monitor for any wounds or bite marks. Some of the most common signs of rabies infection include:

● Unusual behavior – in the early stages of the virus, normally calm dogs may become restless, while excitable dogs may act strangely docile.

● Fever – another early sign of the virus is an elevated body temperature.

● Hypersensitivity – dogs may become sensitive to light, sound, or touch. They may act aggressively toward seemingly minute stimuli.

● Excessive drooling or foaming at the mouth – this well-known sign is caused by paralysis of the jaw and mouth muscles.

● Staggering or incoordination – rabies affects the spinal cord, which ultimately results in paralysis and difficulty walking.

Dogs may also display confusion, a loss of appetite, or sudden seizures. While these symptoms could be signs of another illness, they are always a cause for concern and should be promptly treated by a veterinarian.

What Can Be Done if Your Dog Has Rabies?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies and once a dog starts to display clinical signs of the virus, there is little your veterinarian can do. Since dogs with rabies pose a public health risk, as they may try to bite other animals or people,, pets suspected to have rabies, are typically euthanized..

It’s also important to keep in mind that there is no accurate way to test for and diagnose rabies in living animals. The only definitive way to diagnose the virus is by testing brain tissue, which is only performed on deceased animals. This means that even if you aren’t 100% sure that your dog has rabies, your vet may recommend euthanasia as soon as they display any potential signs.

How Can You Prevent Rabies in Your Dog?

Now that you know the signs of rabies in dogs, it’s equally important to learn how to avoid an infection in your pup. Luckily, it’s easy to prevent rabies with a simple vaccination and ongoing boosters. A dog should first be vaccinated for rabies at 16 to18 weeks old (sometimes sooner) and then given a booster vaccination every one to three years, depending on your veterinarian’s recommendations and state laws. Most states require that pets are vaccinated for rabies as soon as they are old enough, and your veterinarian can provide you with a certificate proving your pet is up to date. Failure to follow the law could result in expensive fines or, in some states, imprisonment. As long as you seek regular veterinary care for your dog, ensuring they receive yearly examinations and routine immunizations, you likely won’t need to worry about rabies.. Talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination schedule that works for you and your pet.

A rabies vaccination doesn’t just protect your pet against the virus, though. If your dog happens to bite a person, they are usually required to undergo quarantine for at least ten days for monitoring. In this case, if your pup’s vaccines aren’t up to date, they may be quarantined for a longer period or laws may even require euthanasia. Regular vaccines can save your pet from unnecessary quarantine or death.

For an added layer of protection, make sure that wild animals like raccoons and bats can’t penetrate your house by sealing up any holes or cracks in your home’s foundation, basement, or attic. This way, you can ensure that both your family and your pets are safe from rabies and other diseases that feral animals may carry.  

How Can You Give Your Dog the Care They Need?

If you’re thinking about getting a new pet or are searching for a new veterinarian, finding a knowledgeable veterinary team you can trust will make a world of difference. Look for a veterinarian who is open about the care they provide and transparent about their pricing. A great animal care provider understands that your pet is an important part of your family, and they deserve the best care. When you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, you have somewhere to turn to in case of emergencies like potential rabies exposure.

Penny Paws Animal Clinic is a leading provider of affordable, high-quality veterinary care in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area. If you’re looking for a trustworthy vet who loves your pet just as much as you do, contact us to book an appointment. We are happy to answer any questions you may have about the care we provide.