What Is Rabies: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention

Rabies and an angry dog

Other than faithfully having my pets vaccinated, I have never given much thought to Rabies. Now and then there is a warning of rabid wildlife in the news, but that’s really the extent of my awareness. After looking into the subject of rabies, I hesitated writing about it. To think that animals can and have suffered such a terrible fate is so upsetting. But after further thought, I thought it best to share the research with you. At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we feel an obligation to educate our followers on matters pertaining to our pet’s health and wellbeing, even when it’s not easy to think about.

Do you know what the word “rabies” means? It’s a Latin word meaning “to rage”. That alone is disturbing, but fitting. There are two forms of the viral disease: Furious rabies, and Paralytic rabies. Furious rabies is proof that it was named appropriately, as it causes an extreme behavioral change in the dog which may include pronounced aggression. Paralytic rabies obviously leads to paralysis.

So, what is rabies? When bitten by an infected animal, the virus immediately begins to replicate at the site of the wound. The virus quickly migrates to the nervous system, affecting the brain and spinal cord, where it continues to replicate. Once in the brain, it begins spreading through neural pathways throughout the skin, heart, kidneys, adrenal glands. It begins impairing neural function. The brain stops communicating with the neurons, causing everything the dog thinks or feels to become distorted. Death by rabies is actually caused by functional alterations of the dog’s neurons. In all seriousness, it reminds me of some kind of deranged horror movie where a type of alien organism invades the body, and in reality, that’s not too far from the truth.

Rabies Symptoms in Dogs

What are the symptoms of rabies that you might see in a dog that has been infected with the rabies virus? The symptoms vary so widely that you may never suspect rabies in the first couple of days. The dog may have a fever. They may suddenly lose their appetite and begin to mildly salivate. They may start eating strange things (pica) along with other subtle behavior changes. One common and very strange symptom is a change in the tone of their bark. These mild initial symptoms only last 2 – 3 days before the more severe symptoms begin to show.

With furious rabies, the dog may appear irritable, nervous or anxious. They may be restless and wander aimlessly. They may have a defensive posture and display hyperexcitability. Pupils will be dilated. They may seek solitude, or just the opposite – appear overly friendly, but capable of biting or attacking without warning. As the disease progresses, the dog may become hypersensitive to light, sound, and water. Muscle coordination will fail and the dog may go into seizures. Eventually, the dog will become paralyzed, notably in the hind legs and the throat. Death will follow.

With paralytic rabies, the dog may or may not be vicious or attempt to bite. Their lower jaw may droop, and they will show muscle weakness and incoordination. Their head, jaw, and throat will exhibit the earliest signs of paralysis. They will be unable to swallow and will begin to salivate excessively. As the paralysis develops, the dog will go into respiratory failure. This happens quickly and death will occur only within a few hours. What a horrible demise.

It’s a Zoonotic Disease

Rabies is transmitted from animal to human via saliva. Typically that happens with a bite or a scratch. Sometimes it’s because of exposure to the dog’s saliva itself, whether directly from the dog’s mouth, or maybe in an attempt to clean up saliva infected surfaces. The rabies virus cannot penetrate unbroken skin. The saliva must enter the human’s body through a wound or mucous membrane.

Rabies in humans in the United States is rare with only 1 – 3 cases occurring annually. Despite the control of the disease in domesticated pets in our country, thousands of people receive rabies treatment, aka postexposure prophylaxix, annually. The rabies virus is not only carried by dogs and cats. It may be carried by raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and bats. It is seldom diagnosed in horses, goats, sheep, swine, and ferrets. The AVMA, American Veterinary Medical Association, reports that most of the relatively few human cases in this country have resulted from exposures to bats. Isn’t that interesting?

A Holiday Barn Pet Resorts pack member was scratched by a rabid cat earlier this year. She was on her way home when she saw a frightened cat running loose in her neighborhood. When she stopped the car to attempt to rescue the cat, it scratched her. She had to undergo postexposure prophylaxix. The treatment involves two vaccinations the day of the exposure, and 3 additional vaccinations given on the 3rd day, 7th day, and 14th day. It’s not fun, but it’s an improvement to the 25 injections to the stomach that was the protocol in years past.

Rabies Prevention and Vaccinations

Here’s a name you probably haven’t heard since middle school Science class: Louis Pasteur, the chemist/biologist renowned for pasteurization and so much more, is noted for developing the first Rabies vaccination in 1885. There have been many changes to the Rabies vaccine since that time, the most recent being in 1979 when the three-year vaccination was developed.

We are fortunate that the seriousness of the disease was recognized early on and prevention protocol was put in place and made into law in a majority of states. However, rabies laws throughout the United States are not consistent from state to state. Minnesota, Kansas, and Ohio do not require rabies vaccination. New Jersey requires a rabies vaccination for dogs but not for cats.

The Code of Virginia requires that all dogs and cats receive rabies vaccine prior to attaining 4 months of age (§ 3.2-6521). A licensed veterinarian or a licensed veterinary technician under the immediate and direct supervision of a veterinarian must administer the vaccine. For more information about rabies vaccination laws in Virginia, visit VIRGINIA GUIDELINES FOR RABIES PREVENTION AND CONTROL

Holiday Barn Pet Resorts requires its guests to abide by Virginia Law and present documentation at least 48 hours prior to check-in. Pets must have received vaccinations at least 5 days prior to arrival for maximum effectiveness.

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