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Rabies: What You Need to Know

By Dr. Jacqueline Brister


Rabies is an infection that affects the brain and nervous system. It can infect any warm-blooded animal, including humans, dogs, cats, and most wildlife. Unfortunately, once symptoms of rabies infection occur, the disease is almost always fatal.

What causes rabies?

Rabies is caused by a virus transmitted through the contagious saliva of an infected animal. Usually rabies is transmitted when a contagious animal bites another animal or person. If the contagious animal’s saliva comes into contact with open wounds or the mouth of a healthy person or animal, infection may also occur. Blood, urine, or feces is highly unlikely to transmit rabies because the infectious viral particles are mostly present in the saliva.

The incubation period, or the time from infection to showing symptoms, varies from weeks to up to a year. Once an animal or human is infected, the virus travels through the nerves and spinal cord, ultimately entering and reproducing in the brain.

Generally, an infected animal is not contagious until just before they begin to show symptoms. An infected animal can cause rabies in another animal or human up to 10 days before they begin showing obvious symptoms.

How do I know if an animal has rabies?

Symptoms vary, but contagious animals usually exhibit strange or unusual behavior. Wild animals may become docile and unafraid of humans. Animals that normally move around at night time may be seen roaming around during the day. Other symptoms can include dilated or constricted pupils, unexpected aggression, extreme reactivity to noise or light, seizures or twitching, weakness, paralysis or wobbliness when walking, and/or drooling.

Unfortunately, rabies can only be diagnosed by analyzing tissue from the brain. 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 to be tested.

Can rabies be cured?

There is no treatment for rabies. The good news is that there is a vaccine available to prevent rabies in cats, dogs, and humans. The human rabies vaccine can be given to prevent rabies, but it can also be administered after a human has been exposed, such as if he or she is bitten by a rabid animal. The dog and cat rabies vaccine only works to prevent rabies.

What should I do if I or my pet has been bitten?

There are different laws for each city, county, and state that apply to pets and wildlife that bite a human or pet. If you or your pet was bitten by a wild animal, the animal may need to be trapped and tested for rabies. Do not try to trap the animal yourself- call your local wildlife or animal control department for assistance. If you or your pet were bitten by another pet, calling animal control to determine the best course of action is a good idea. If the pet was up to date on their rabies vaccine, it is unlikely they were infected with rabies. If they were not up to date, a quarantine may be necessary for that animal. If you or a family member were bitten by a wild animal, including bats, call your state health department to see if they recommend post-exposure rabies vaccine prophylaxis. This is a series of vaccines that will prevent you from developing rabies, and should be administered as soon as possible.

What should I do if my pet bites someone?

If your pet is up to date on their rabies vaccine, it is unlikely that they have rabies. However, you may need to prove that they have been administered their rabies vaccine in a timely manner. Your veterinarian can provide you with a copy of your pet’s vaccine records to demonstrate this.

If your pet is past due for their rabies vaccine, your pet may need to be quarantined for at least 10 days. This is because a pet can be contagious for up to 10 days before showing symptoms. After 10 days of quarantine, your pet may need to be examined by a veterinarian to ensure that no symptoms are present. Local or state laws may have different requirements. Be sure to check that no other actions need to be taken.

If you are ever suspicious of an animal having rabies, calling your veterinarian’s office, animal control, and/or your local wildlife department can help you determine what to do. Never approach a rabid animal yourself. Remember to keep your pets up to date on their rabies vaccination to ensure that they cannot be infected or transmit this deadly disease.

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