What Is Rabies

Rabies is a very severe and frightening disease of many animals of which the dog is not excluded. It is a form of polioencephalitis which affects the gray matter of the animal's brain as well as the central nervous system. This disease is basically transmitted to a dog through the bite of an infected animal such as bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. The rabies virus is found in high concentrations within the saliva of an infected animal.

The rabies virus will multiply in the animals muscle tissue before migrating to the central nervous system through the nerve fluid within the peripheral, sensory, and motor nerves. This process can take more than a month but once the virus enters the central nervous system that is usually when you will notice the first symptoms of rabies.

Rabies can be transmitted from an infected animal to humans. Therefore, it is extremely important that if you suspect that your dog has rabies to take every precaution possible so as to not be bitten, scratched, or to come into contact with the animal's saliva.

Causes of Rabies in Dogs

The rabies virus belongs to the genus Lyssavirus of the family Rhabdoviridae. Transmission occurs through contact with blood or saliva from an infected animal. It can also be transmitted, although it is rare, through the inhalation of gases from decomposing carcasses of infected animals. This can occur in caves where there are large populations of bats which carry the virus.

Types of Rabies

This disease has two basic forms: furious and paralytic. Currently there is no diagnostic procedure that will determine whether a dog will develop the furious or paralytic form of rabies when they are infected by the virus.

The furious form of rabies is characterized by a complete transformation in the animal's behavior. In this type the dog will change from a docile animal into one that will attack without provocation. The paralytic form, on the other hand, is characterized by general lethargy, weakness, and lack of muscular coordination to the point of complete paralysis.

Once the first signs of rabies becomes apparent it is extremely important to take immediate action and get the animal to a veterinarian as it only takes a few days from that point for the animal to begin showing aggressive behavior if they develop furious rabies.

Symptoms of Rabies in Dogs

The early symptoms of rabies in an animal are usually mild. This is usually indicated by either a lack of muscle coordination or what may appear a muscle stiffness in the animal. If either of these early signs are noticed it is imperative that you take the animal in to get treated immediately. Early treatment usually has a good prognosis.

As the disease progresses the animal will begin to show other symptoms which include the following:

  • Eating indigestible items (pica)
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Paralysis
  • Hydrophobia (the fear of water)
  • A sagged or dropped jaw
  • An inability to swallow (frothing at the mouth)
  • A noticeable in the tone of their bark
  • Shyness or aggressive behavior
  • Overly excitable (may be confused with agitation)
  • Irritability
  • Paralysis of the jaw
  • Constant salivation (also frothing at the mouth)

If any of the above symptoms appear in the animal it is usually too late to help them and euthanization is usually the only course of action.

Diagnosis of the Disease

As soon as you notice the first symptoms of rabies, or suspect that your animal may have contracted rabies, subdue it by placing it in a cage. Once the animal has been subdued call your veterinarian so that the animal may be quarantined and observed for signs of rabies. If the animal is aggressive towards you you will need to call animal control to subdue the animal and take it to be quarantined.

The veterinarian will keep the animal quarantined for 10 days to determine whether it has rabies or another condition which may also cause aggressive behavior. Currently the quarantine procedure is the only acceptable method of determining rabies as other methods are extremely expensive and that puts them beyond the financial means of most people.

As mentioned earlier, aggressive behavior can also be caused by other ailments. Because of this, the only definitive method of diagnosing rabies is through a blood test to positively identify the virus. Unfortunately, this is not a veterinary practice.

The most common method of diagnosing the virus is through a post-mortem examination of the cerebral (brain) fluid and blood. This type of diagnostic procedure will only be performed if the animal dies while in quarantine and will be conducted at a special lab that is sanctioned by your government to carry out such tests.

If while the animal is quarantined your veterinarian determines that the rabies virus is present through observation you will be advised to have the animal euthanized. The vet will then submit samples of tissue and fluids to be examined to make an absolute and positive identification of the virus.

Vaccinated vs. Unvaccinated Animals

A dog that has up-to-date rabies vaccinations has a lower risk of contracting the virus than one who is not vaccinated. For an unvaccinated dog that is suspected of coming into contact with another infected animal the quarantine period can be up to six months. A vaccinated dog, having a lower risk factor, will require only 10 days of quarantine.

However, when the first symptoms of the disease appear progression is extremely rapid and death usually occurs within 7 to 10 days.

Immediate Treatment

If your animal has come into contact with an infected animal take it to the vet immediately. Also provide proof to the veterinarian that your animal's vaccinations are up to date. If anyone has been in contact with the animal they must be informed to seek medical attention. Also give them your vet's contact information so that they may give that to their doctor for following up on the condition of the animal.

Also, if you have come into contact with your pet's saliva or have been bitten or scratched you must seek immediate medical attention.

Any person who has come into contact with a rabid animal may have to undergo a series of rabies shots to counteract the disease. This procedure usually involves 10 shots at a rate of one a day. The whole procedure begins with an initial injection of dead rabies virus directly into the abdominal wall. Each day the virus injection is a little more potent until on the tenth day a full dose of the live rabies virus is injected. Fortunately, most people that have to start a rabies treatment don't have to go through the full 10 shots as it is usually determined that the suspected animal does not have rabies.

Disinfect the Area

Whether you have had a suspected case or a confirmed case of rabies it is extremely important to completely disinfect the area where the animal frequented. To do this you can use about 4 to 5 ounces of household bleach to a gallon of hot water to neutralize the virus. It is advised to wear rubber or Playtex gloves when disinfecting the area to prevent inadvertent self-infection.


Rabies is a very real and problematic issue for domesticated animals. That is why it is very important to keep your animal's vaccinations up to date. And although this is a disease that will never be eradicated in the world because it occurs in so many animals, the use of vaccinations on domestic animals can keep our pets relatively safe.

Also, keeping yourself and others safe if you have an animal that you suspect may be infected is of primary concern. Do not put yourself or others in jeopardy in trying to subdue the animal. Leave this to professionals who are trained in proper procedures in capturing and subduing suspected rabid animals.

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