Dog Rabies: Questions and Answers
Angell Memorial Animal Hospital
Rabies is a much–feared disease of the nervous system that dates back to ancient times. It is caused by a virus and is transmitted by contact with the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. The incubation period can last from several weeks to a year or more. There is no known cure for the disease in animals. If not treated immediately, the disease is also fatal in humans.
Rabies has been rare for decades, appearing primarily in a very small percentage of bats. However, an outbreak of raccoon rabies, which originated in the Mid-Atlantic States in the late 1970s, has now made its way to New England. It is one of several strains of rabies currently plaguing wildlife in different areas of the United States. It is essential that residents know how to protect themselves, their pets, and other animals in their care.
We hope that answering the following commonly asked questions about rabies will help demystify this disease and provide the information necessary to prevent needless suffering or loss of life.
Q. How does an animal get rabies?
A. Rabies is a virus that is transmitted from saliva to an open wound. The most common route of infection is from a bite from a rabid animal. Once bitten, the virus travels from the saliva of the rabid animal along the nerves of the victim to the spinal cord and then up to the brain. Once the virus reaches the brain, abnormal behavior begins. As the rabies virus travels up the nerves and spinal cord, the animal is unable to transfer the virus to another animal or person. A short time after reaching the brain, the virus is in the salivary glands and is shed in the saliva. At this point, the animal or person is considered contagious and usually dies from the disease within 10 days. The length of time it takes to develop the signs of rabies varies, depending on where the initial bite occurred in relation to the brain. Animals bitten on the tips of the rear toes will take longer to develop rabies than bites on the tip of the nose.
Q. What is the purpose of quarantine?
A. Quarantine is frequently done to prevent euthanasia of a pet. If an animal has bitten someone and the rabies status is unknown or vaccination is overdue, testing for rabies is not a good alternative, since this requires euthanasia. By keeping a pet in quarantine, his behavior and health can be monitored. If the pet dies within the quarantine time, testing for rabies is crucial. If the pet develops no illness or behavior changes during the time of quarantine, the pet is considered not to have been actively contagious for rabies when the bite occurred. It does not mean that the pet is free from rabies. If the virus was traveling up the nerves and spinal cord at the time of the bite, no transmission of the virus occurred, although the pet is still is harboring the virus.
Q. How will I know if an animal is rabid?
A. You can't be completely sure that an animal has rabies just by observation because the signs of rabies are extremely variable and the symptoms often resemble those of the other diseases. Animals with rabies sometimes become aggressive, have seizures and attack people and other animals or objects. Rabid animals sometimes act confused and disoriented, show signs of paralysis and make hoarse vocal sounds. They may also just stand and stare. Any wild animal that acts tame or friendly should also raise the suspicion of rabies. A suspected animal can be tested for rabies. Unfortunately, a brain biopsy is required and the animal must be euthanized in order to perform the test.
If you see an animal that you suspect may be rabid, stay away. Call your local animal control officer, veterinary clinic or police department.
Q. What animals carry rabies?
A. All mammals can contract rabies but the virus primarily affects raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats and occasionally woodchucks (also known as groundhogs). Birds, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice and other small rodents are rarely affected. Snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, fish and insects do not get rabies.
Q. What can I do to avoid rabies?
A. Pets are the most common link between rabid wildlife and humans. The most important preventative step you can take is to be sure your dogs and cats are up to date on their rabies vaccinations – for your sake and theirs. Even indoor cats should be vaccinated, since they can accidentally get out and infected animals can get in. Do not let your pets roam free, and do not feed them outside. If you keep a bird feeder, clean up spilled seed to avoid attracting other forms of wildlife. Consult your veterinarian about vaccinating livestock, since they can also contract rabies.
Avoid stray cats and dogs and teach your children not to touch animals they don't know.
Enjoy wild animals from a distance. Never handle or attempt to pet or feed them. Do not keep wildlife as pets; there are no rabies vaccines approved for use in wild animals. Keep your trash cans in a closed garage or shed. Use raccoon-proof lids on garbage day. Keep wildlife from living in and around your home by sealing holes and screening chimneys.