Summary

Rabies is a viral disease caused by rabies virus, which affects the brain and nervous system. Virtually any warm-blooded animal can be infected, including humans, dogs, cats, and wildlife. The infection is spread through saliva from a contagious animal, most often by a bite wound. 

After infection, symptoms may not occur for weeks, possibly even up to a year in some cases. Once an animal or human is infected, the virus travels through the nerves and spinal cord, ultimately entering and reproducing in the brain. Most animals are not contagious until symptoms occur.

Of further importance, once symptoms of rabies infection are seen, the disease is almost always fatal, with death usually occurring within about 10 days.

Symptoms and Identification

Rabies symptoms typically involve strange or unusual behavior. Wild animals may become docile and unafraid of humans. Pets that are normally very sweet may become hostile or aggressive. Animals may try to attack or bite people or other animals without warning.

Other signs of rabies infection can include:

  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Anxiety or fear of noises, water, & lights
  • Seizures or twitching
  • Weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Drooling

Unfortunately, rabies can only be diagnosed from brain tissue. No rabies tests are available for live animals. This means that, in order to determine if an animal has rabies, the animal must be euthanized and a portion of their brain must be tested. Because of the high risks for humans to become infected, only specialized laboratories can perform these tests.

Affected Breeds

Rabies can infect pets of any age, breed, or gender.

Treatment

Rabies cannot be cured in pets and no treatments are available for animals suspected of having rabies. Because of the risk of causing infection in animals or other people, most local and state regulations require that any animal suspected of rabies infection must either be quarantined and separated from others, or euthanized.

Veterinary Cost

Because animals cannot be treated, expected costs are for euthanasia and testing. Many laboratories do not charge for the actual testing, but shipping and handling costs can range from $50-200 depending on location and size of the animal. Depending on the state and local regulations, testing may be required by law.

Prevention

Rabies can easily be prevented with rabies vaccines (i.e. rabies shots). An initial vaccine is given as early as 12 weeks of age, boostered in 1 year, then repeated every 1-3 years. How often to give the vaccine may depend on state or local governmental regulations.

References

1. Greene CE: Rabies and Other Lyssavirus Infections. Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat Elsevier 2012 pp. 179-197.

2. Weese JS, Fulford MB: Viral Diseases. Companion Animal Zoonoses Wiley Blackwell 2011 pp. 257-268.

3. Iowa State University, Institute for International Cooperation in Animal Biologics: Rabies. Emerging and Exotic Diseases of Animals 2009.

4. Crystal M Gigante, Lisa Dettinger, James W Powell et al: Multi-site evaluation of the LN34 pan-lyssavirus real-time RT-PCR assay for post-mortem rabies diagnostics. PLoS One. 2018 January; 13(5):e0197074.

5. Cleaveland S: Global Canine Rabies Elimination Strategy. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings 2014.

6. Pimburage RMS, Gunatilake M, Wimalaratne O, et al: Sero-prevalence of virus neutralizing antibodies for rabies in different groups of dogs following vaccination. BMC Vet Res 2017 Vol 13 (1) pp. 133.

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