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Rabies 101: What you need to know

October 20, 2019

Rabies is a potentially deadly viral disease that affects both animals and people. It's transmitted when the saliva of an infected animal enters the blood- stream of another animal or human, usually via a scratch or bite from rabid wildlife (most commonly bats, raccoons and skunks).

What rabies looks like

In humans with the rabies virus, symptoms of headache, fever and general weakness progress to insom- nia, anxiety, confusion and hallu- cinations. As the disease advances, partial paralysis and difficulty swallowing become common. Once clinical signs appear, death is inevi- table and usually occurs within days.

Pets exhibit slightly different signs than people. The time between exposure to the virus and signs of infection (called the incubation period) ranges from a few days to a few months. The disease has two main forms. Here's what they look like in animals:

  • Furious form. When people picture rabies, they typically envision the furious form—a Cujo-style mad dog frothing at the mouth. These animals become hypervigilant and anxious, and may attack with little provocation. Wild animals may lose their fear of humans, and nocturnal species may be active in daylight. Quiet dogs become aggressive and rambunc- tious dogs become docile.
  • Paralytic form. Animals with paralytic rabies are usually not aggressive and won't attempt to bite. They typically hypersalivate and lose the ability to swallow. Owners may think the pet has something lodged in its mouth. These initial signs rapidly progress to paralysis throughout the body. Coma and death quickly follow.

Rabies prevention

Most municipalities require rabies vaccinations for dogs, and many are starting to require them for cats as well. Pets should receive their first rabies vaccination at 12 to 16 weeks of age, followed by a second vaccination a year later. After that, pets should be vaccinated at one- or three-year intervals, based on local public health recommendations.

Pet owners can reduce the rabies risk by monitoring their pets when outdoors, by calling animal control to remove stray animals from the neighborhood and by not leaving food, water or easily accessible garbage cans outside where they could attract wild animals. Washing a bite or scratch wound immediately with soap and water may help to prevent the onset of disease.

Treating after exposure

If a pet dog or cat that has received at least one rabies vaccination is po- tentially exposed to the rabies virus, the CDC recommends immediate revaccination followed by observa- tion by the owner for 45 days. If the animal shows any signs of the disease during that time, it should be evaluated by a veterinarian and possibly euthanized. Animals that were never vaccinated should be euthanized immediately because the vaccine will be ineffective.

In people, the disease is prevent- able if caught early enough. About 40,000 people in the United States receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) each year following contact with a potentially rabid animal, according to the CDC. PEP includes a single dose of human rabies immune globulin and a dose of rabies vaccine as soon as possible after exposure, followed by three additional vaccine doses over a 14-day period.