It’s probably the best-known of all animal diseases and — luckily for dog owners — now among the most rare in the Western world. But rabies is still a deadly and highly contagious disease, and it’s only held in check by careful health practices, an aggressive vaccination program, and quick action when a case crosses over from the wild animal population to pets.
Most dog owners know a little about rabies: It’s usually passed by the bite of another infected animal; it causes erratic and dangerous behavior, followed by paralysis; and it’s virtually always fatal. And yes, it can be passed to humans (though, thanks to our health practices, there have been only 35 cases of human rabies in the U.S. in the last 25 years).
Getting and staying current on your dog’s rabies shots is essential, of course, and knowing the symptoms is a good idea. But the good news is you’re not likely to see Cujo in your living room any time soon, except maybe on the TV.
Although the Centers for Disease Control recently announced that canine-specific rabies has been eradicated in the U.S., rabies is still out there among other animals in the wild — and your dog can get it if he hasn’t been vaccinated.
In fact, since the 1970s, there’s been an epidemic of rabies among raccoons, and more than half of the cases in dogs originated from that particular wild beast. The rest have come from skunks, foxes, and bats, in that order. The most likely form of transmission is through a bite from an infected animal (not via fleas, mosquitoes, or other insects), though there have been rare cases of transmission from breathing the air in bat-infested caves.
When it’s time to see a vet
Although you’ll likely never see a case, the symptoms are fairly obvious and startling. There are two stages of the disease: the furious, followed by the paralytic or dumb stage. The names alone tip off just how nasty a malady this is. At first, rabid dogs show changes in temperament, including:
- Sudden affection in otherwise reserved dogs
- Insensitivity to pain
- Snapping at imaginary objects, biting, and self-mutilation
In the paralytic stage, the mouth hangs open, saliva drips off of it, and the affected dog can’t eat or drink. Once they become dehydrated, total paralysis follows, and death occurs soon after. Any animal or human bitten or scratched during either period is considered exposed and needs treatment.
Obviously, if you see any of these symptoms — in fact, even if you suspect that your dog has been exposed to rabies — go to a veterinarian immediately.
The vet will assess your dog’s symptoms and recent history and, if she deems necessary, contact the health department. Vets and health officials always err on the side of caution when it comes to this virulent and dangerous disease — quarantine is likely for an exposed dog.
Quarantine periods last as long as 90 days. If symptoms don’t appear during this time, the dog will be released. If they do show up, the dog will be euthanized immediately.
Sad to say, there is no treatment for rabies, and recovery is virtually unheard of. Keeping an infected dog away from quarantine does nothing to help his chances; it simply subjects him to pain, suffering, and poses extreme danger to others.
As well as there being no treatment for rabies, there’s no definitive test for it either — vets can only tell for sure through an autopsy.
How to prevent rabies
It can’t be said often enough: Vaccinate your dog. That’s what has kept this horrible disease under control for decades in the U.S. and Canada (unlike South America, Asia, and Africa, where there were more than 35,000 human deaths from rabies just last year). Your pup should be vaccinated the first time at three or four months of age, and then get a yearly booster shot without fail.