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Rabies: Understanding this still-active disease

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Any warm-blooded animal (including humans) can contract rabies. There is no treatment for rabies, and the instances of unvaccinated dogs surviving the infection are rare.

Fortunately, the risk of a dog coming into contact with the virus is low and vaccination programs are highly effective. Pet parents can help to ensure the safety of pets and family by making sure their dog's rabies vaccination is always up-to-date.

Since rabies is highly preventable through vaccination, taking precautions such as proper vaccinations and preventing contact with wild animals are essential safeguards.

The laws regarding rabies vaccination and biting animals are regional and variable. It is important to consult your veterinarian or local animal control department for up-to-date information.

Transmission of rabies virus occurs through a bite from an infected animal. Common carriers include bats, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. The virus is shed in saliva, and when a rabid animal bites a dog, the virus spreads through the nervous system and moves to the brain, usually in about 3 to 8 weeks, but occasionally longer. After the virus reaches the brain, the dog may experience one or more of the following phases:

  • The prodromal phase is characterized by a marked change in temperament. Dogs that are normally friendly may snap easily; aggressive dogs may become quiet and affectionate. It is common for the dog to lick the site of the bite. This stage lasts for 2-3 days and the dog may have fever spikes and erratic behavior.
  • In the furious phase, the dog becomes restless and irritable and is hypersensitive to auditory and visual stimuli. The dog may become vicious, disoriented, and have voilent seizures. Death can occur in the furious stage.
  • The paralytic (also called "dumb") phase follows either of the first stages. During this phase, paralysis occurs beginning with the muscles of the throat and face. The dog may salivate, have trouble breathing, and the jaw may drop as the facial muscles become paralyzed. Eventually, the animal goes into respiratory failure, and dies.

Any dog bitten or scratched by a wild animal or an unvaccinated pet could potentially be exposed to rabies. Since reginal laws vary, pet owners should contact their local veterinarian immediately for advice on how to proceed. Any human bitten by a pet or wild animal should be examined immediately by their physician.


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