Rabies in Dogs: What You Should Know

Rabies is an aggressive, acute and devastating viral disease that can affect any warm-blooded mammal, although bats, skunks, foxes, raccoons, cats, and dogs are often the most susceptible to becoming a carrier. It’s a disease that has been around for thousands of years, with the earliest known writings that describe it dating as early as 23 B.C. Thankfully, in more modern times like today, the disease is not nearly as prevalent, largely due to vaccinations as well as elimination programs and vigorous regulations and quarantines across the globe.

However, rabies does still exist, and it’s particularly prevalent in countries that aren’t as developed as the West. Sadly, once clinical signs of rabies begin to appear, whether the victim is a dog or a human or some other animal, the virus is considered fatal and has no known cure.

What is Rabies in Dogs?

Rabies stems from the encephalomyelitis virus, which attacks a dog’s central nervous system and the grey matter of the brain. It is transmitted through saliva, typically from a bite like you might receive from a wild animal. However, a bite isn’t necessary to become infected. Saliva can find its way into an open wound or orifice on the body and still infect its target. There have even been some very rare instances where infection occurred through inhalation of bat saliva after entering a cave full of bats.

However, it is rare for a domestic dog to contract rabies unless they are exposed to a wild animal and bitten, such as a raccoon or even a feral cat. Rabies in cats is on the rise, which increases the risk to domestic dogs as well as humans. Rabies in dogs has an incubation period ranging from two weeks to four months in length. How quickly your dog may develop clinical signs of rabies depends on bite severity, how much of the virus was passed along through the bite, and where your dog was bitten.

The nearer a bite is to the brain or spinal cord, the faster clinical signs may develop. Again, once a dog has begun to display clinical signs of rabies, death is almost certain. Because the virus moves so quickly, if treatment isn’t started right away, the prognosis for recovery is extremely poor. If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a rabid animal, you should take them to a vet immediately to be quarantined and begin vaccination or booster shots and treatment, even if your dog has been vaccinated before. Be careful to wear protective clothing and gear, and don’t risk exposing yourself to the virus.

Clinical Signs of Rabies in Dogs

If left untreated, as rabies progress, your dog will undergo three different phases. After the 3rd phase, roughly 3-7 days after the onset of initial clinical signs, death will occur.

Rabies in Dogs: Prodromal Phase

This is the initial phase of rabies in dogs that lasts anywhere from 2-3 days. During this phase, you may notice behavior changes in your dog. They may suffer from a fever, you may notice their eye reflexes seem slow, and they may chew or lick at the spot they were bitten. Dogs that are normally laid back may flip and become very aggressive, dangerous, and unpredictable. They may bite or snap at anything. Dogs with aggression may flip and become needy, attention-seeking, and seem more affectionate than usual. You may also notice restlessness, nervousness and anxiety in dogs with rabies

Rabies in Dogs: Furious Phase

The next phase of rabies in dogs lasts anywhere from 2-4 days. During this phase, a dog may experience hypersensitivity, they may eat things that are not food (pica), they may hide somewhere dark and soothing, attack inanimate objects (even the sides of their cage if they are locked up), they may bark and if they aren’t caged, they may roam. They can also appear to be disoriented and even suffer from canine seizures.

Rabies in Dogs: Paralytic Phase

This phase lasts anywhere from 2-4 days as well, and it is the stage that you may begin to notice drooling and foaming at the mouth that is often depicted in movies, as well as signs of dog paralysis, especially in the face and throat. These symptoms may cause changes in their bark and cause their jaw to drop.

Paralysis usually begins in the limb a dog was bitten, but it progresses quickly. During this phase a dog will also experience canine depression, possibly begin to cough, and eventually move into a coma. From there, the result is death from respiratory failure due to paralysis.

List of Progressive Warning Signs of Rabies in Dogs

First Phase

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Fever
  • Shyness
  • Snapping and biting
  • Docile behavior out of the norm
  • Unusually aggressive behavior
  • Licking, chewing, and biting at the site of the bite

Final Two Phases

  • Increased sensitivity
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heavy breathing
  • Jaw hanging open
  • No control over the throat
  • Staggering, lack of coordination
  • Paralysis of the hind legs
  • Pica (eating things that aren’t food)
  • Hiding (usually in a dark place)
  • Disorientation
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Weakness
  • Trembling
  • Appetite loss
  • Fear of water
  • Pupils may be dilated
  • Seizures

Diagnosing Rabies in Dogs

Unfortunately, there is not currently any way to accurately diagnose a case of rabies in a living animal. There is a procedure called the direct fluorescent antibody test, and is considered to be the most accurate, but it requires a sample of brain tissue.

This means it’s a test that can only be performed after the dog has died. In most cases, if you suspect your dog may have been infected, you need to call your vet right away. If your dog is already displaying clinical signs such as aggression or trying to attack you, don’t try to catch and cage them yourself. Call animal control and enlist their help.

Once your dog is caught, they will be quarantined for at least 10 days under your vet’s supervision, in an effort to confirm a rabies diagnosis. If your dog has been vaccinated in the past, you will need to show proof to your vet. While in quarantine, if the dog dies your vet may collect fluid samples. Blood testing can sometimes be done to detect the presence of the rabies virus, but it’s not a procedure performed by vets.

If your dog begins to show clinical and progressive symptoms of the rabies virus while quarantined, in most cases he will be put down. If your dog was unvaccinated and bit by an animal known to have the rabies virus, he must be quarantined according to state and local regulations. This quarantine can last up to 6 months.

Treatment and Prevention of Rabies in Dogs

The best way to treat your dog is to prevent your dog from contracting rabies in the first place. Vaccinations are vital and in the U.S. rabies vaccinations are mandatory, though not all dogs in the U.S. have been vaccinated as they are supposed to be.

If you suspect your dog has been exposed to the rabies virus and he has been vaccinated, it’s required that he is re-vaccinated and then quarantined. If the dog has never been vaccinated, the dog must be euthanized, or quarantined for 6 months and then vaccinated if the owner is unwilling to put them down. This is the best way to prevent the spread of rabies, as harsh as it may seem.

Check with local and state regulations for the proper vaccine schedule, but in most cases, it’s recommended that dogs receive their first vaccine at least by the age of 4-6 months old.

A second vaccination is recommended after one year of age, and then inoculations may be recommended every three years throughout your dog’s lifespan. It’s estim