Learning About Rabies

Say the word “rabies” and immediately an alarm goes off in the brain. Most of us associate the word with a “mad dog,” foaming at the mouth and dangerous. While that’s an accurate description, it’s a little more complicated than that.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 5,865 laboratory-confirmed cases of rabies in animals reported in 2013. While the number of cases in humans throughout the United States averages one to three a year, it’s still an incurable, fatal disease, yet a preventable one. It’s always a good idea to reacquaint ourselves with the facts about rabies, and be prepared should our pets come within risk.


Rabies is a virus that affects the central nervous system, causing inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. It is transmitted by saliva through an opening in skin, which is why a bite from an infected animal can spread the disease. The most common animals reported as rabid in the U.S. are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes.


Once the virus has entered the system, it multiplies. Symptoms will begin to appear within two to eight weeks of contact, but usually as early as ten days.

A dog infected with rabies will begin to exhibit extreme changes in behavior, including restlessness, apprehension, and aggression. Some rabid dogs will have a fever. As the virus spreads, the dog may become hypersensitive to light, sound, and touch. Paralysis in the jaw and throat muscles leads to the so-called foaming at the mouth. Once it affects the spinal cord, the dog may lose coordination, begin to stagger, or become paralyzed. Eventually, the virus will kill the dog.


There is no cure for rabies, and the only way to diagnose the disease is by examining the brain – and that can only take place after the dog has died or has been euthanized. Therefore, the only real treatment is prevention. Keeping your pets indoors is the best deterrent; walking them on a leash outside with strict supervision will also help.

Contact your veterinarian immediately if your dog has been bitten. Even if your dog has had a recent rabies vaccination, your vet will probably want to administer a booster, and will certainly have your dog quarantined for up to ten days. Also contact your local animal control authorities, so they can investigate and apprehend the possibly infected biter. Do not attempt to capture the animal yourself. (If you have been bitten by a possibly rabid animal, contact your doctor immediately, as well as animal control.)


The CDC strongly recommends euthanizing any unvaccinated pet that has been exposed to a rabid animal. That’s why it’s important that all of your dog’s vaccinations are up to date, and not just for rabies.

Any pet that spends unsupervised time outdoors should definitely be vaccinated. In addition to wild animals, the disease spreads quickly through stray dogs and cats. Check with your veterinarian about the local requirements for a vaccination schedule, including how early in a dog’s life it should begin.

Vaccination is a legal requirement in most states, and it protects your dog in a number of ways. Most obviously, if your dog comes into contact with a rabid animal, the vaccination will prevent the virus from spreading. But just as importantly, should your dog bite another animal or person, proof of vaccination will keep him or her from being euthanized, although still quarantined.

Further Information

To find out more about rabies and how to protect yourself and your pets, check with your veterinarian, or with the animal shelters in your area. Many local pet clinics offer education as well as vaccinations; mobile pet clinics are on the rise as well. Be prepared, and stay healthy!

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