Since the rabies vaccine was invented in 1885, pet deaths caused by the disease have dropped substantially. Before widespread vaccinations, more than 100 pets died annually from rabies. The rabies vaccine is legally required for all dogs in the United States, but some areas have different regulations concerning the frequency of vaccinations. Currently, between one and two dogs in the U.S. die each year from rabies. Vaccinating dogs is also very effective in preventing the spread of the disease to humans.
Although the rabies vaccine prevents pet deaths every single year, it’s still important to know that it also comes with some unwanted side effects in some cases. Are you thinking of getting your dog vaccinated for rabies but concerned about the side effects? Learn more about the side effects of the rabies vaccine for dogs here.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a fatal neurological disease found in animals. The single-stranded virus is of the genus Lyssavirus in the family Rhabdoviridae. It is a preventable, viral condition that typically affects dogs who are bitten by another infected animal. Its devastating effects led to the invention of the rabies vaccine for dogs. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), 90% of reported rabies cases occur in wild animals including raccoons, foxes, bats, and skunks.
What are the Symptoms of Rabies in Dogs?
Rabies is a polioencephalitis (viral infection of the brain) that affects the gray matter of a dog’s brain as well as their central nervous system. The infection leads to brain disease and eventually, death. Early symptoms of rabies include fever, weakness, general discomfort, and other flu-like symptoms.
As rabies progresses through an animal’s body, symptoms may include:
- Partial paralysis
- Increase in saliva
- Hydrophobia (fear of water)
- Cerebral dysfunction
Once these signs of rabies appear in an animal, the condition will almost always be fatal. Treatment for a rabid dog is generally only supportive. Death will typically occur within a few days of the more severe symptoms.
How is Rabies Transmitted?
The primary way for a dog to become infected with rabies is through the bite of a rabid animal in which the virus spreads through saliva or blood. Rabies transmission can come from an infected dog but is more commonly from a wild animal. When a dog is bitten, viral saliva or blood particles infect their bloodstream. When the rabies virus enters an animal’s body, it begins to replicate through muscle cells and will spread to fibers of the central nervous system. If a dog is bitten by a rabid animal, it may take a full month for symptoms to show up. Once an animal is showing signs of rabies, the disease will rapidly progress. Although modern-day cases are very rare, the rabies virus also has the potential to be transmitted to humans.
Rabies Vaccine for Dogs Side Effects
Any pet vaccination has the potential for side effects or adverse reactions. Preventing rabies involves administering a passive antibody by injecting human immune globulin as well as a round of shots of the rabies vaccine. Injections are usually given through a dog’s skin or muscle. After immunization, mild side effects are common and will typically begin just a few hours after the shot.
Common side effects of the rabies vaccine in dogs include:
- Swelling or firmness of the skin at the vaccination site
- Mild allergic reaction
- Low-grade fever
- Decreased appetite
- Runny nose
In most instances, if your dog has a mild reaction to the rabies vaccine, it is nothing to worry about. If reactions are more severe than the mild symptoms listed above, bring your pet back to the vet for an examination.
If your dog had a reaction to the rabies vaccine, your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the best course of action for future immunizations. If your pet had a previous adverse reaction to the rabies vaccine, you might be able to get your vet to authorize an alternative treatment.
In rare cases, the rabies vaccine can lead to a potentially life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. The condition can cause respiratory and cardiac failure in dogs and will usually surface within minutes of getting a rabies shot. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include elevated heart rate, vomiting, diarrhea, pale gums, seizures, hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog following a rabies vaccination, bring your pet back to the vet right away. Epinephrine will be administered immediately for anaphylaxis.
Delayed Side Effects of the Rabies Vaccine in Dogs
Some delayed medical and behavioral reactions to the rabies vaccine may occur, although they are rare. Delayed side effects of the rabies vaccine may start a week or more following the shot and can last much longer.
Delayed side effects of the rabies vaccine may include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Various skin conditions
- Heart problems
- Chronic loss of appetite
- Vision problems
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Lipomas (fatty tumors)
- Periodontitis (gum disease)
- Hair loss
- Ongoing seizures
- Thyroid issues
- Separation anxiety
- Destructive behavior
It’s important to note that these delayed side effects are not scientifically proven to be a direct result of the rabies vaccine. Other variables are at play for many of these conditions.
Is My Dog at Risk for Contracting Rabies?
If an unvaccinated dog is bitten or scratched by a wild mammal that has not been tested for rabies, the canine is at risk of being exposed to the virus. Unimmunized pets infected with rabies are generally euthanized almost immediately.
Smaller animals such as mice, squirrels, and rabbits are not known to pass rabies to dogs. If any of these small animals bit your pet, they are most likely not at risk for contracting rabies. However, if rabies is widespread in your area or your pet is exhibiting strange behaviors, the virus is a possibility.
Rabies is diagnosed in dogs using the DFA (direct fluorescent antibody) laboratory test. The test checks the presence of the virus in brain tissue. Within a few hours of testing, the lab work will be able to determine if a dog is rabid.
How Do I Know if Rabies is in My Area?
The CDC reports rabies surveillance information for the United States each year. The report lists the number of rabies cases and which animals as well as maps showing where instances of the virus are reported. In addition, each state collects data about rabies. Your state’s health authority site is a good resource for up-to-date information about the virus in your area.
If your dog previously received the rabies vaccine and is bitten by an infected animal, your vet will likely request proof of the immunization. In the event that someone comes into contact with your dog’s saliva or is bitten by your pet, they should see a doctor immediately for treatment. Upon confirmed diagnosis of rabies, cases should be reported to a local health department. State regulations require that unvaccinated pets that are exposed to a rabid animal are quarantined for up to six months. Vaccinated animals that are exposed will usually be monitored and quarantined for ten days.
How to Prepare for the Rabies Vaccine
Although you will not be able to predict any reactions or side effects your dog will have with the rabies vaccine, you can still be prepared in case of any dire outcomes.
It’s important to notify your vet as soon as you notice any adverse reactions your dog has to the rabies vaccine. Your veterinarian clinic may want to supervise your pet for a little while to make sure the symptoms subside. For a few weeks after vaccinating your dog, keep the immunization records on hand. If your pup has a bad reaction, providing the information to your vet will allow them to quickly respond.
It’s crucial that the rabies vaccine is not administered in conjunction with any other immunization. Increased side effects of the rabies vaccine have been reported with multiple vaccinations within a short period. Wait a few weeks after a rabies shot before giving your dog another vaccine.
The rabies vaccine has been groundbreaking in reducing the number of cases of animals infected with the fatal disease. There are a variety of rabies vaccines available that are both safe and effective. Keeping your dog up-to-date with the rabies vaccine is vital to preventing the illness. After a full course of rabies shots, immunity to the disease will last for a long time. Although the vaccination is legally required, staying aware of potential side effects will be in your pet’s best interest throughout the process.