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Pet Health

Understanding Rabies

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system primarily in carnivores and bats, but can affect any mammal. It causes sudden, progressive inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.

Dr. Karen Whala

August 26, 2023

Imagine a world where the threat of a fatal disease looms over the joy of owning a pet. Sounds unsettling, doesn't it? This is the reality that comes with rabies, a lethal disease that can be fatal to humans and other mammals, including our cherished dogs. But, before panic sets in, let's take a deep breath and remember: rabies is preventable!

Through this comprehensive guide, we aim to empower you with the knowledge about rabies domestically and globally, plus how to partner with your veterinarian to keep your pet safe from this devastating disease. So, let's embark on this journey of understanding rabies, its implications, and the steps we as a community can take to prevent it.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system primarily in carnivores and bats, but can affect any mammal. It causes sudden, progressive inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Once clinical signs begin, it is fatal, making prevention all the more crucial.

On a global scale, rabies is classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD). In humans it primarily affects disadvantaged populations who often lack access to important post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Rabies impairs the central nervous system, leading to severe brain disease, resulting in death if not treated swiftly post exposure. As disheartening as this may sound, we want to assure you that rabies is preventable and rarely affects humans in the United States. Through our journey of understanding this disease, we hope to equip you with the knowledge required to protect your treasured pets.

How is Rabies Transmitted?

Rabies spreads primarily through bites or scratches from infected animals. The saliva of infected animals enters into the bloodstream of the bitten or scratched animal, transmitting the virus and the disease to its new host. The virus can remain in the body for weeks before signs develop. Most cases in dogs develop within 21 to 80 days after exposure, but the incubation period may be considerably shorter or longer.

In the United States, wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes are the common carriers. However, in a global context, dogs are the most common carriers and contribute to the highest percentage of global rabies-related deaths. In rare cases, rabies can also transmit via inhalation of infected aerosols or transplantation of infected organs. High-risk humans who've had contact with suspected rabid animals are recommended to undergo a full course of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Signs and Symptoms of Rabies

It is important to speak with a medical professional if you believe that you or your pet has been potentially exposed to rabies. Rabies manifests in stages, initially presenting with changes in behavior, such as unusual aggression or anxiety, and physical symptoms like fever, difficulty swallowing, excessive drooling, and hypersensitivity. As the disease progresses, these symptoms further develop to the state of 'furious' rabies, marked by restlessness, disorientation, seizures, and attacking behavior.

Subsequent stages include 'paralytic' rabies, characterized by paralysis, labored breathing, and coma, ultimately leading to death. Timely intervention before the onset of symptoms can potentially halt disease progression, however, once symptoms develop the disease is nearly 100% fatal emphasizing the need for immediate medical intervention following a potential exposure. Currently, the only available testing for rabies can only be performed post-mortem.

Rabies in Dogs: An Overview

Rabies can pose a significant threat to dogs due to their exposure to other animals, even when kept strictly indoors. Transmission typically occurs when dogs are bitten by another infected animal, primarily wildlife such as racoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.

The signs of rabies in dogs can vary, ranging from fever, pain, restlessness, and seizures, to paralysis or even coma. This underscores the need for reaching out to a vet immediately if your dog comes into contact with wildlife, irrespective of the observable signs or symptoms.

Since rabies is preventable in dogs largely due to vaccination, laws have been established in many states mandating regular rabies vaccination for pets. If an unvaccinated dog gets bitten or directly exposed to a possibly rabies-infected animal, the law requires the dog to be quarantined for up to six months.

As a pet parent, it's crucial to understand that the most effective measure against rabies is prevention. Remember, prevention not only involves remaining up to date on vaccinations, it includes them and taking immediate action if they're bitten by another animal.

Vaccination: The First Line of Defense

When it comes to protecting your dog from rabies, vaccination is the first line of defense. Vaccines help in building immunity in your pet by activating their immune system to create antibodies against the disease.

For dogs, rabies vaccination usually begins when puppies are sixteen weeks old. It is then followed by a booster shot usually a year later and then every one to three years following.

However, with different local jurisdictions and more than one rabies vaccine manufacturer, it is essential to follow the vaccination schedule recommended by your local veterinarian.

Preventing Exposure to Rabies

Beyond vaccination, another critical component of preventing rabies in dogs is to minimize potential exposure to the disease. Dogs often contract rabies through bites from infected wildlife, such as bats, raccoons, skunks or foxes. Therefore, it’s crucial to monitor your pet's time spent outdoors and monitor for bat activity in and around your home.

Here are a few steps to consider:

Control your pet's outdoor activities: Avoid letting your dog roam freely. Always use a leash when walking them, especially in areas where there might be wild animals.

Avoid contact with wild or stray animals: Teach your dog not to approach unfamiliar animals.

Secure your surroundings: Make sure your home and surrounding areas, such as yards or gardens, are secure from wildlife. Regularly check for and seal potential entry points for these animals.

Remember, prevention is always better than cure. Taking these measures can reduce the chances of you or your dog contracting rabies.

Importance of Regular Vet Check-ups

Significance of regular vet visits cannot be overstated in general, but even more so in the context of diseases like rabies. Regular check-ups provide an opportunity to keep your pet's vaccinations up-to-date. Furthermore, vets can offer additional advice on preventing exposure based on known wildlife carriers in your local area.

Dealing with Rabies in Your Area

If there's been news of a rabies outbreak in your area, it's critical to talk to your veterinarian promptly. They can guide you on additional measures you might need to take to protect your pet. It may include giving a booster vaccine, restricting outdoor activities, or reporting to local animal control.

Remember, handling a dog with potential rabies infection should be avoided if possible. Contact animal control for assistance and guidance. If your dog has been bitten by a potentially rabid animal, avoid touching them with bare hands. Use gloves and other protective measures when handling your pet, and contact the vet immediately.

What to Do if Your Dog is Bitten by a Rabid Animal

In the event that your dog is exposed to or bitten by a potentially rabid animal, immediate and appropriate action becomes crucial. Contact animal control to address the animal suspected of having rabies. When handling your dog, wear gloves to safeguard yourself and minimize potential contact with the infectious saliva of the suspected rabid animal. Consult your dog’s veterinarian immediately.

Even if your dog is up to date on its rabies vaccination, it will possibly need a booster shot following potential exposure to the virus. In a case where your dog has not been vaccinated against rabies, your veterinarian will guide you through the necessary steps which will likely include vaccination and monitoring.

Understanding the Quarantine Process

To further prevent the spread of the disease, your local health department may require your dog to be quarantined. The length of quarantine can vary depending on whether your dog is up to date on vaccines, showing neurologic signs, and the risk of exposure to the virus.

In quarantine, your dog is placed in a secured area to limit its contact with people and other animals. This isolation allows close monitoring for any signs of illness. It's crucial to understand the quarantine process and abide by the guidelines set out by your local health department. This action is not meant to punish you or your dog, but to protect you, other people, and animals in your community from this fatal disease.

Treatment Options: What You Need to Know

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for rabies. If your dog is suspected of having contracted the virus and is not vaccinated it is possible that they will be euthanized to prevent the disease from spreading to other animals and people and to perform post-mortem testing for rabies. Please, be sure your dog is current on their rabies vaccines to avoid this possibility.

Dogs who are current on their rabies vaccine who are believed to have been exposed to the virus are often given a booster vaccine and monitored for a certain period to see if signs develop. The sad truth is that once symptoms of rabies appear, the disease is almost always fatal. This underlines the critical importance of rabies prevention, including regular vaccination and immediate care following potential exposure.

Understanding Rabies Laws in Your State

Different states have different laws related to rabies in dogs. It's crucial to understand these laws to protect not only your beloved pet but also your community.

Vaccination laws: In most states, it is mandatory to vaccinate dogs against rabies. Some states require annual vaccinations, while others require vaccination every three years after the initial booster at one year. Reach out to your local animal control agency to find out the specifics for your state.

Licensing laws: Most local municipalities require dogs to be licensed and the rabies vaccination is often a prerequisite for obtaining the license.

Leash laws: Some states have strict leash laws to prevent potential exposure to rabies from wildlife.

Health Certificates For Travel: If you plan to travel with your pet you may need to obtain a health certificate especially when traveling internationally or to islands such as Hawaii that are rabies free.

We understand how challenging it can be to keep up with all laws and regulations surrounding your pet's needs. Your veterinarian, local animal control officers, and the local health department are all resources for the most accurate and up-to-date information related to rabies laws and requirements in your area.

The Role of Animal Control in Rabies Cases

Animal control agencies play an essential role in preventing and managing potential rabies cases in your community.

Vaccination monitoring: In areas where vaccination is mandatory, animal control agencies monitor compliance and can issue citations for non-compliance.

Stray animal handling: Animal control agencies manage stray animals who may be or may have been exposed to rabies.

Wildlife management: In many areas, animal control works in tandem with wildlife agencies to manage potential sources of rabies, like raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes.

If you suspect that a local animal may have rabies, it’s crucial to alert local authorities. They are equipped to handle the situation safely and effectively and can test wildlife for rabies when appropriate.

Reporting a Rabid Animal

If you suspect an animal to be rabid, it’s critical to act quickly while prioritizing safety.

Do not approach the animal: Rabies is extremely contagious and lethal. Keep your distance and avoid contact.

Call animal control: Report your experience to your local animal control agency.

Keep others away: Control your animals, keeping them away from the area. Advise others, particularly children, to stay away from the suspected animal.

Legal Implications of a Rabid Dog

If your dog contracts rabies, there may be serious legal implications to consider.

Failure to vaccinate: In states where rabies vaccination is mandatory, failure to vaccinate your pet could result in fines or legal repercussions.

Liability for bites: If your dog bites someone and is found to have rabies, you might be held legally responsible for post exposure prophylaxis and other medical costs.

Quarantine requirements: Laws usually require a quarantine period for dogs suspected to have rabies.

Living in a World with Rabies: A Global Reality Check

The Global Impact of Rabies

Rabies is a lethal, vaccine-preventable disease, and sadly, it continues to plague our global society. Worldwide, a staggering 95% of human fatalities occur in Asia and Africa with rabies being present in all continents except Antarctica ^1^. The majority of global cases of rabies are transmitted through the bites, scratches, or saliva of domestic dogs. While the majority of human cases in the United States are the result of exposure to infected bats.

Children between the ages of 5 and 14 are particularly vulnerable, and the disease disproportionately affects socioeconomically marginalized populations who frequently lack access to post-exposure treatment.

Efforts to Control and Eradicate Rabies

Global efforts to combat rabies have primarily centered around prevention, with vaccination of domestic dogs and cats considered a critical component. By breaking the chain of rabies transmission at the source, vaccinations drastically reduce the need for costly and reactionary post-exposure treatments ^1^.

In addition to vaccinating our canine companions, educating communities about dog behavior and bite prevention has proven to be an effective control measure^1^. High-risk individuals are also advised to receive pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a precaution, including researchers and those in the veterinary field.

Despite these efforts, the struggle to control and eradicate rabies continues. Yet, each step taken is a step closer to a world free from the devastating impact of this disease.

How Communities are Dealing with Rabies

Communities in high-risk areas especially in Asia and Africa bear the brunt of the rabies epidemic. From rural towns dealing with infected wildlife populations, to densely populated cities with large populations of stray dogs, rabies poses unique challenges.

Dealing with these challenges requires multi-pronged strategies including vaccination programs, stringent animal-control measures ^3^, and improved veterinary care, combined with public education initiatives to create more knowledgeable and safer communities.

While these interventions can be challenging and costly, their implementation is crucial in managing rabies risk. Living in a rabies endemic area demands a coordinated community response but together, we can all make a difference.

Public Awareness and Education about Rabies

Public awareness and education are essential tools in our battle against rabies. By arming individuals with an understanding of how rabies is transmitted, the symptoms of the disease, and steps for prevention, we empower our communities to play an active role in controlling the spread of rabies.

Information on recognizing a potentially rabid animal, understanding the risk of unsupervised pets, and the importance of immediate medical intervention after potential exposure can mean the difference between life and death.

At CodaPet, we believe that by educating and spreading awareness, we can make our communities safer and less vulnerable to the threat of rabies.

Your Role in the Fight Against Rabies

As a pet parent, you play a crucial role in the fight against rabies. By ensuring your pet is vaccinated and limiting their exposure to potential sources of rabies, you are making a significant contribution to preventing the spread of this deadly disease. In addition, by educating yourself and others about the signs and symptoms of rabies and the importance of immediate medical intervention following potential exposure, you can help save lives.

By being informed and proactive, we can ensure a healthier future for our canine companions. Let's not forget, as pet parents, we're not just responsible for our pet's health, but we also contribute to our community's safety. We are in this together, for our pets, for ourselves, and for our communities.


  • Rabies:
  • Small Door Veterinary:
  • Rabies [CDC]:
  • CDC:
  • Written by WebMD Editorial Contributors:

Dr. Karen Whala

Fresno, CA


Dr. Karen Whala has always had a soft spot for the older pets she’s treated in practice and saw a need for these beloved pets to pass peacefully at home rather than in a clinic setting. To that end, she started Peaceful Passing in 2018 to help families assist their terminally ill, injured, or suffering pets as they transitioned from life in the Fresno and Clovis areas.  Read More