A Primer on Rabies in Dogs

Rabies is a highly fatal viral disease that people can contract from animals.

Rabies in wild animals is most common in bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. Because dogs can come in contact with these animals when outdoors, they form a “bridge” between rabid animals in the wild and people. Little can be done once signs of rabies develop. Therefore all dogs should receive routine vaccination against rabies to prevent this severe disease in your dog and possible exposure to you and your family.

A Primer on Rabies in Dogs: Rabies in wild animals is most common in bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes.

How it happens

Your dog can contract the rabies virus by:

  • saliva through a bite wound
  • any other type of open wound (such as a cut),
  • or even through contact with mucous membranes (such as the eye or mouth) 

What does it look like

The virus then travels up the nerves to the brain.

Rabies can take either of two possible forms.

“Furious” rabies

The best-known form of rabies, seen in movies, is called “furious” rabies. In this form, an animal becomes very excited or aggressive. They are often biting or attacking anything or anyone in their path (including their owners).

Periods of excitement or aggression often alternate with quiet periods. Furious rabies is the most common form in cats and is also seen in many dogs. Normal barking tends to change to a hoarse croak or howl. As the disease progresses, seizures are common.

“Dumb” rabies

The second form of rabies is less well known. It is called “dumb” rabies and is associated with weakness and paralysis rather than aggression.

As a result, many animals try to hide. An animal with dumb rabies exhibits strange behavior, such as:

  • losing its fear of people
  • becoming unusually friendly,
  • or wandering around in broad daylight

For example, a skunk is normally active at night. One wandering around during the daytime shows strange behavior and should be considered suspect.

The sign typical in both forms of rabies is excessive salivation (i.e., “foaming at the mouth”). This results from paralysis of the throat muscles, which makes it difficult to swallow. In addition, the pain and fear associated with swallowing anything, even water, led to the historical designation of hydrophobia (fear of water).

Diagnosing rabies

A definite diagnosis of rabies requires examination of brain tissue from a dead animal. 

However, unvaccinated animals that bite someone can undergo quarantine. The quarantine needs to last at least ten days to see if signs of rabies develop.

Preventing rabies

Vaccination for rabies is a legal requirement for all dogs and often for cats as well.

Your dog will usually get its first rabies vaccination at about 3-4 months of age. Booster shots typically follow every 1-3 years after that, depending on local laws. Your veterinarian can advise you on your local area and state laws.

In addition to vaccinating your dog, you can take several common-sense measures to protect both your dog and yourself, including the following:

  • Don’t let your dogs roam alone outside where they might come in contact with rabid wild animals.
  • Do not feed dogs outside because the food will attract wildlife.
  • Remove all sources of food, e.g., use animal-proof garbage can lids.
  • Check your house and property to ensure that wildlife cannot enter (e.g., cap the chimney, plug any holes in the roof or eaves).
  • Remember that rabid animals change their normal behavior. So always stay away from wildlife, especially animals that are acting strangely!
  • If you see an animal that you think may be rabid, contact your local animal control agency or public health authority immediately.

It’s also important to know what to do in the unfortunate event that you are bitten (by any animal). For any bite, you should immediately wash the wound thoroughly with large amounts of soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.

If a wild animal has bitten you, you should report the bite to your local health department and animal control agency. In addition, if you have been bitten by a dog or cat (that is not yours), you should obtain as much information about the animal as you can, including a description, its license number or identification, the owner’s name, address, and telephone number, and the rabies vaccination status whenever possible.

Related articles:
Cookie’s Rabies Booster and Latest Blood Work

Further reading:
Rabies in Dogs

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