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Rabies – A Complete Guide For Dog Owners

Rabies is a deadly virus that is deadly in dogs and humans. Rabies prevention for dogs is key to fighting the disease as it is treatable and preventable with vaccine treatment. Join me on this journey into understanding what rabies is, how it affects animals, including humans, and prevention and treatment.

What is Rabies?

DNA Animation
DNA Animation

Rabies is a single-stranded RNA, neurotropic virus.  But let’s start at the beginning and explain RNA. You’ve likely heard the term DNA. This stands for Deoxyribonucleic Acid. DNA is at the heart of life, at least for us humans and most living things on Earth.  DNA for us is a double strand of molecules chained together to form a single DNA strand. You’ve probably seen pictures of DNA before, like this one to the right here.

This picture shows the structure of a small segment of a DNA strand.  The DNA strand holds the programming to create complex life forms like you and me.  But let’s not get too far out in the left-field, as they say. So…

What is RNA?

An RNA Strand
An RNA strand.

RNA stands for Ribonucleic Acid.  And unlike DNA, RNA is a single strand, usually folded over itself like in the picture here→

Most viruses utilize RNA to encode their evil selves.  That is if you can call viruses evil. Most viruses work by using RNA to trick a cell, in essence, into replicating its RNA instead of the DNA the cell would normally replicate.  That’s the ridiculously over-simplified explanation anyway.

Many viruses have specific instructions in their RNA to get their hosts to have a variety of effects that work great to help the virus spread.  Sometimes, these get out of control and the virus wipes everything out. But we’ll get to that.

History of Rabies

Rabies is a frighteningly fatal disease.  And it’s been around for a while. The best information I could find on rabies was that it’s a relatively new virus, compared to the length of time humans have been around.  It is likely that the current forms of rabies lyssavirus have evolved within the last 1500 years or so. There have evolved several forms of the virus since and in this time frame as well which comprise the different strains.

The rabies virus has had waves of infection over the years with rises and falls in infected animal amounts, depending on the region.  For example, the highest rate of deaths caused by rabies contracted from Bats occurred in the West Indies between 1925 and 1935 with 89 human fatalities [Source: Wikipedia].

Typical Rabies Case

Okay so Rabies isn’t exactly a plague, but it has come and gone, rising and falling in level for some time.  In Canada, there was a high occurrence of rabies cases reported in the mid-1980s. I remember many, many nights my dad, Dr.Willard Shantz, would be called out to go to an emergency call.  This was typically calls from farmers who had shot or captured a suspected rabid animal. As a veterinarian working for the Federal Government of Canada – Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, (which were merged into one Government agency) it was my dad’s job to ensure the safety of Livestock and People alike.  He was a specialist who worked with deadly diseases like Rabies, Tuberculosis, Mad Cow Disease and many more.

So, when a farmer had caught a fox that had bitten one of his cows, my father would get the call and go to the farm.  As time is of the essence with the deadly disease, dad would have to rush out to get samples of the brain of the infected animal to send to a special lab for immediate testing. The cow which was bitten would need to be quarantined until the results came back.  If the result was positive for rabies, the cow would have to be destroyed unfortunately as there is no cure and rabies is fatal. Due to the risk of transmission, and to avoid unneeded suffering, the cow would need to be put down.

How Rabies is Spread From Animal To Animal

If you read the typical rabies case above, then you’ll know I just gave away one of the scenarios of how the virus is transmitted.  Rabies is transmitted via the saliva of an infected animal. Rabies is only an issue for mammals. Fish and reptiles have nothing to fear from rabies.  The disease is contracted when infected saliva enters the body of an uninfected animal. This is usually done through the means of a bite. Therefore, rabies prevention in dogs starts with the simple act of preventing a rabid animal from biting your dog. Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Please, No Drooling!

Rabies is a nasty, apocalyptic-like virus that can make some animals go berserk and attack other animals, thus transmitting the virus further.  Preventing rabies in dogs is the best way to defend your furry friend. Typically the virus needs to enter an open wound, as it doesn’t usually infect an animal if saliva falls on unbroken skin. The saliva needs to enter the body to infect the victim.  In rare cases, animals have contracted the virus from the contact of infected saliva with a mucous membrane such as the eyes or mouth.

Any warm-blooded animal may be infected with the rabies virus.  According to the publication Serological survey for rabies antibodies in raptors from California, courtesy of Wikipedia, birds may even be infected, however, they often recover unlike the majority of mammals whom the disease would be fatal for.

Rabies Symptoms

There are a few things to watch for when it comes to rabies.  First and foremost is the knowledge that your dog got into a scrap with another animal.  Rabies transmits via saliva entering the body, usually via a cut or scratch. This is typically done when an animal bites another animal.  So if you know your dog has recently defeated another animal in battle, then there is the possibility for rabies transmission. Preventing rabies in dogs by vaccinating them is your best defense.

Once infected, the symptoms of Rabies start off as the flu does.  Fever, aches and pains, headache. Then comes the delusions, aggression, delirium, muscle spasms, convulsions, and finally death.

Here is a list of symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty Swallowing
  • Excessive Salivation
  • Hydrophobia
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Partial Paralysis

If you think you or someone you know has contracted rabies, or if you or someone you know has been bitten by an animal, contact your doctor or emergency department IMMEDIATELY.  Rabies is fatal but there may be hope if immediate treatment is acquired. Better yet, follow good practices of rabies prevention for dogs and other animals with vaccination.

Cases of rabies in domestic animals and humans in United Stats from 1938 to 2019. Rabies prevention for dogs by vaccinating them is your best defense.
Cases of rabies in domestic animals and humans in the United States from 1938 to 2019. [Source]

How Rabies Affects Animals – The Phases Of Disease

1st Phase – Entering The Body

Rabies first enters the body via the saliva of an infected animal.  This usually happens when the infected animal bites and either punctures the skin or scratches it and saliva makes contact with the broken skin or tissue underneath such as muscle.  

2nd Phase – Travelling On Nerves

The virus travels up the nerves and continues to the spinal cord.  Once at the spinal cord, it continues up to the brain. At this point, the infected victim has no idea they are sick.  There won’t be any symptoms until the virus hits the brain that is. This initial stage of the illness is called incubation.

3rd Phase – Multiplication

The next phase of the illness begins as the virus starts multiplying in the brain.  It starts to cause inflammation of the brain. Little to no symptoms may yet be present but they are coming, and fast.

Final Phase – Saliva Infection

The final stage of the virus is the real nasty phase.  The virus moves to the salivary glands and thus saliva.  The symptoms begin and are quite unmistakable. Within a few days, the symptoms are extreme and completely obvious as the infected victim is doomed to suffer the final throws of the disease which is now incurable and in most cases fatal.[Source]

Worldwide, the most danger presented to humans, according to sources cited in Wikipedia, is from the transmission of the rabies virus from one of the following species:

  • Bats
  • Monkeys
  • Raccoons
  • Foxes
  • Skunk
  • Cattle
  • Wolves
  • Coyotes
  • Dogs
  • Cats 
  • Mongooses

However, it is important to remember that any mammal can be infected.  That’s why it is vitally important to stay clear of any wild animals. When the infection from rabies sets into the brain, it may disorient the animal which can cause unusual behavior.  Often times, people may think the animal is injured or requiring assistance and will approach the animal out of caring, without realizing the inherent dangers.

Are Dogs A Threat?

Dogs are actually one of the biggest threats to humans when it comes to rabies transmission.  This is because humans are typically trusting of dogs. You wouldn’t walk up to a skunk, but you’d likely have no qualms with walking right up to and petting a dog, would you? The same applies to cats. Most people do not fear cats and see them as cuddly, cute little buddies who could always use a good petting.  Well, this is a very bad idea when it comes to diseases like rabies.  

Don’t Forget About Rabies

Many people have forgotten about the dangers that rabies can pose due to rabies prevention for dogs, and other animals.  If you see a wild or domestic animal wandering around if they appear at all confused or acting erratically, stay away and call the authorities immediately.  The animal must be quarantined to determine if infected. If infected, the animal should be euthanized by the proper authorities and disposed of to avoid the spread of the virus.  Even a dead animal with rabies can be dangerous. Other animals may eat the dead animal and contract and spread rabies further, which is why the corpse must be destroyed.

My Experience With Vaccine Drop

Some species are known to be affected by rabies differently than others.  For example, in North America, there are at least two strains of rabies virus that affect different species more harshly than others.  That is, both are fatal strains, but one strain seems to make cats go berserk and the other strain has a similar effect, but on raccoons.  

A number of years ago, I was a volunteer for a program run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  The program was an effort to slow the spread of rabies in Southern Ontario.  We took to the skies in small planes with trays and trays of cubes of fish lard with rabies vaccine embedded in the cubes.  I can tell you the smell on the plane was something else. We flew all over wilderness areas across Southern Ontario, dropping the cubes over the wilderness. 

The idea is that the stinky cubes would attract all manner of raccoons, skunks and other opportunistic omnivores, who would gladly gobble up the stinky treats and become vaccinated against the spread of the virus.  The efforts were very successful at slowing the spread of the ‘raccoon rabies’ from the Northern U.S. into Canada. Slow, not stop, just to be clear. Despite the seemingly complex way in which rabies is spread, the disease still poses a serious health risk and needs to be taken seriously.

Can Rabies Be Cured?

Rabies prevention for dogs starts with vaccinations and regular visits to the veterinarian.
Rabies prevention for dogs starts with vaccinations and regular visits to the veterinarian. Curing rabies is possible but must be done within a short time period. If you suspect your pet has been in contact with a rabid animal, call your veterinarian’s emergency line immediately.

The best bet is always to practice rabies prevention for dogs and other pets. For humans, if a person is bitten by a rabid animal, there is hope.  As long as the human receives immediate treatment, the disease can be halted and ever cured.  But it is highly important that a person gets immediate medical attention. The disease can stay in the body for some time before it travels up the nervous system to the brain.  Because of this, you could go for a week and think you are fine, then WHAM, it hits you and you die. Nasty stuff, rabies is, as Yoda might say.


Should I Get My Pet Vaccinated For Rabies?

Yes.  Absolutely and without doubt, yes.  In fact, it is a legal requirement in Ontario, Canada to have your dog vaccinated.  Period. With regards to the United States, check out this cool interactive map that shows each state and the vaccination requirements for each.  Click here to use the interactive map.  Rabies prevention for dogs is crucial to keeping our furry friends safe.

How Much Does The Vaccine Cost

The typical 3-year rabies vaccine costs usually about $50.  Well worth it to offer rabies prevention for dogs.

Why Does Rabies Make Some Species Violent

Rabies has evolved to make species violent.  This helps the virus spread. As rabies virus uses saliva as a means to spread from animal to animal, it only makes sense that the virus would evolve to make animals violent.  The violence makes the animals more likely to bite another animal which would spread the virus further.

What wild animals have the most chance of getting and spreading rabies?

In North America, the most common species to contract and spread rabies are bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks.  The greatest risk to humans is dogs though. This is because people are not afraid of dogs.

If My Pet Is Vaccinated And Is Attacked By A Rabid Animal, Will It Get Rabies?

Although technically this is possible, it is extremely unlikely.  If you have followed the best practices for rabies prevention in dogs, then likely it will be okay. The best practice is to call the authorities to test the other animal to confirm it indeed has rabies.  The next step is to quarantine your pet after carefully cleaning your pet. Use a face shield to cover your mouth, nose, and eyes.  Use long rubber gloves. Wash your pet thoroughly to remove any possible saliva. Next, you will want to clean any wounds.

Best Practises If Your Dog Is Bit

The best practice is to call your vet, they will know exactly what to do.  But if that isn’t an option, give your dog a bath using the proper personal protective equipment so no splashes can get on you. Wash the dog, being cautious not to get soap in their eyes or mouth of course.  Clean and disinfect any wounds immediately. This also helps prevent infection as the saliva may not have moved into a wound enough to infect yet. And make sure you quarantine your dog until you have spoken with your vet and they have advised you to do otherwise.  Always consult your veterinarian when your pet may have an injury such as a bite or scratch from a wild animal. And keep your pet’s vaccinations up to date.  

What Do I Do If I Suspect My Pet Has Rabies?

  1. Quarantine your pet alone.
  2. Call your veterinarian for instruction.  Depending on what stage the disease is in, they may be able to help or even save your pet.  Call them right after quarantining the pet.
  3. Keep the pet isolated and follow the veterinarians’ instructions.

Remember the best defense for your dog is rabies prevention for dogs with standard vaccinations kept up to date.

Facts & Stats

Over 70,000 people die each year, worldwide, from the virus.[Source]

Rabies prevention for dogs starts with vaccinations.  This map shows the human death toll in 2012 from rabies around the world.
Deaths from rabies per million persons in 2012.
Rabies deaths per million legend.
Rabies – It’s a killer.


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