Rabies in Dogs and Cats

What is Rabies in Dogs and Cats?

Rabies is a viral disease capable of infecting ANY mammal, including humans, dogs, cats,dog and skunk2 wildlife, and production animals. It is not carried by, nor does it affect, birds, reptiles, fish, or any other non-mammals. Insects, ticks, and other non-vertebrates are not a risk for spreading or harboring the disease. Rabies occurs worldwide with a few exceptions, such as some island nations with strict importation regulations and parts of northern Europe. The major carriers in the United States, depending upon region, include skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats, though any mammal may carry the disease and spread it to other mammals. The disease is fatal after clinical signs develop, therefore prevention and immediate post-exposure treatment are the only control methods available.

How Rabies Works in Dogs and Cats

The rabies virus targets the neurologic system (brain, spinal cord, and nerves) of its host, traveling between hosts most often through virus-laden saliva via bite. Much less commonly, transmission has been demonstrated via contact with virus-laden neurologic tissues and open wounds (such as an accidental cut or scrape during an autopsy of a rabid animal), as well as through corneal transplants. Blood and urine are not known to transmit the disease.

Once the virus reaches a new host, it travels up the nearest nerve until reaching the spinal cord and brain. There, it multiplies, causing any combination of neurologic abnormalities, including seizure, hydrophobia (“fear of water”, because the throat spasms at the anticipation of swallowing), paralysis, aggressiveness, agitation, etc. Early signs, however may be vague and mild, such as lethargy, weakness, headache, vomiting, etc. The virus travels to the salivary glands and is deposited in a new host typically through a bite wound (due to increased aggression and lack of fear), starting the cycle again.

It may take up to six months for the virus to complete its trip to the brain and for the host to develop signs, though it can occur as rapidly as a few days or weeks after exposure.

Click here  to watch videos explaining how rabies works.

Prevention and Treatment of Rabies in Dogs and Cats

Rabies is untreatable and almost always fatal once signs have raccoon1 developed, making prevention the key method of controlling the disease. This is why all dogs and cats, regardless of lifestyle (indoor, outdoor, active, sedentary, etc.) or region within the United States, should be vaccinated against rabies. Even for indoor cats and dogs, failing to vaccinate for rabies can leave owners open to liability in the rare instance of bite.

Always use caution when approaching a pet with unknown vaccination status, do not assume every pet is vaccinated. Do not attempt to separate fighting animals. Never leave children unattended with pets. Any wild animal behaving unexpectedly bold should be considered a significant rabies risk and should be avoided. Any wildlife bite or bite from a pet with unknown vaccination status should be addressed by a physician immediately.

In any case of animal bite, regardless of circumstances or severity, immediate medical attention should be sought. In some cases, and when addressed quickly enough after exposure, post-exposure vaccination or local wound treatment with anti-virus medication can reduce the risk of developing disease.

Prevention and treatment requirements for humans bitten by a wild or pet animal with unknown vaccination status vary by locality; check with your city, county, and state authorities for details.

Further Information

This article is only an overview, for more thorough information about rabies, visit the following links:

1. Centers for Disease Control

2. Cornell University Medical School

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Dr Roger Johnson and Dr Derek Calhoon

Roger K. Johnson, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM (internal medicine) is a board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist. His professional interests include cardiology as well as using advanced diagnostics to help his patients. His particular favorites include echocardiography, abdominal ultrasonography, and endoscopy. Derek Calhoon, DVM is a veterinary general practitioner.

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