Dog Rabies: A Public Health Threat

Dog Rabies: A Public Health Threat

Alpha Paw Sale

Sep 07, 2021
AUTHOR Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Reviewed by Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Dr. Cristina Vulpe is a board-certified small animal veterinarian. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2011 and her PhD in veterinary oncology in 2015.



  • Rabies in dogs is a preventable, yet lethal disease. There is no cure available until now for the human or canine form alike.

  • If your dog shows aggression, excessive salivation, local paralyses, choking, difficult breathing, and sensitivity to light and water and you suspect they have rabies, call your vet and your local Animal Control right away.

  • If your pet hasn’t yet completed their vaccination plan, do not walk them in the woods or in any other area where they could come into contact with rabid animals.

What Causes Rabies In Dogs?

Rabies has become quite rare these days as veterinarians now recommend the vaccine to pet parents as soon as they get a dog or a cat.

The rabies virus can be transmitted through the saliva of any animal that carries it and that has developed the rabies infection. In some states, it is illegal to own a dog that hasn’t received the rabies vaccine.

However, what we would like to note is that dogs can get vaccinated against rabies only once they have completed the basic vaccination plan, which includes biological products against Parvo, Distemper, Canine Adenovirus, and a variety of other potentially lethal diseases.

Cats and dogs can acquire rabies by coming into contact directly with an infected animal or its secretions. In North America, the main way a dog gets rabies is by being bitten by an infected animal such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, or even a bat.

Wild animals are the main carriers of the rabies virus these days, especially since most cats and dogs are now vaccinated against it.

Dog Rabies: A Public Health Threat

Signs of Rabies in Dogs

The worst thing about this disease is that it can take some time (sometimes, even up to one month) for any symptoms of rabies to show up in dogs. There are three main stages of rabies in any animal, whether domestic or not.

Prodromal Stage

If your pet has come into contact with a wild animal that carried the rabies virus and there was no way for the pathogen to get into your dog’s blood flow, there is a chance that they might not become infected.

Typically, an infected animal begins to show symptoms of rabies within the first two or three days after coming in contact with another rabid animal.

However, according to the World Health Organization, the incubation period of this infection can be anything from two to three months or more, but it can also be less, such as one week or two.

The first clinical signs that pet owners notice in their dogs are milder. They do become more severe as time goes by as the disease progresses into its more dangerous form. A dog with rabies can show the following signs:

In this stage, most animals can become aggressive even if they have always been calm and the other way around. If you witness any of these symptoms, make sure to reach out to your veterinarian.

Dog Rabies: A Public Health Threat

Furious Stage

Furious rabies can last for anything between one and seven days.

The clinical signs that are most noticeable in this period are irritability and restlessness, but the dog continues to show some of the rabies symptoms from the first stage, such as a significant sensitivity to light, but also noises of any kind.

Dogs in this stage can bite humans around them as aggression increases. If you didn’t know, rabies in humans is untreatable, so it is paramount for you to contact your veterinarian immediately and also call the local health department.

Otherwise, you will be putting yourself and your family at the risk of being bitten and getting the disease — and it remains lethal to this day.

Paralytic Stage

Paralytic rabies typically develops around two to four days after the second stage.

Since the virus affects the nervous system and effectively makes it impossible for dogs to move or engage in any activities, they will experience paralysis of the jaw and throat, as well as foaming at the mouth. Fear of water is also common in this stage.

Dogs that have been exposed to rabies will have difficulty breathing, they might even choke or experience complete respiratory failure, or they will become lethargic or entirely paralyzed.

Paralytic rabies is also called dumb rabies due to the way it affects the nervous system of domestic and wild animals alike. After incubation, the virus goes from the dog’s saliva into the nerves and spinal cord and reaches the salivary glands.

Saliva is the main way the rabies virus is transmitted to other animals.

When To Contact a Veterinarian

Get in touch with your vet immediately if you know that your dog was bitten by another animal in the past 24 hours. Any of the symptoms that we have mentioned above should give you a reason to suspect that your pet might have been infected with the virus.

We would like to note that while the virus progresses, the symptoms become quite severe. If your dog experiences seizures and foaming at the mouth for no particular reason, it might suffer from another neurologic disease.

However, if they aren’t vaccinated, veterinary assistance is required as soon as possible.

Post Exposure and Treatment

Even with the many advances that veterinary medicine has made in the past decades, there is no treatment for rabies. In fact, rabid dogs are dangerous for humans as this is an infection that almost any mammal can develop no matter whether they have a perfectly functioning immune system or not.

How can a vet tell if your dog has rabies or not? While there is a test available these days, so a rabies diagnosis is possible, it is typically performed after the animal has died.

The reason for this is that the rabies virus is a danger to public health, so the dogs are usually captured and kept in isolation for a minimum of 10 days. Some vets might risk giving dogs a vaccine just out of necessity, but if they are showing severe symptoms and they can’t even be tranquilized, this can be very difficult, if not impossible.

Protecting Your Dog Against Rabies

Rabies in dogs can be prevented by making sure that your dog gets the complete vaccination plan recommended by your veterinarian. Most dogs are given the rabies vaccine after the age of three months.

If you live near a forest and you think that there is a higher likelihood for your dog to come into contact with a rabid animal, your vet can give your pooch a booster vaccination. The shot is usually administered two to three weeks after the first dose.

If Fido was bitten by another animal, especially another dog or a cat, try to get as much info about them as possible. You should do this even if your dog is vaccinated.

Try to keep your dog as protected from wild or stray animals as much as possible. Do not walk your pet in areas where you know there are a lot of bats or foxes, especially if they haven’t completed their vaccination plan. Getting rabies doesn’t take much — any pet can become infected if they come into contact with another animal’s secretions (saliva and urine).

How Contagious is Rabies for Humans and Other Animals?

Since a rabid animal’s saliva is the main way a person can become infected, they should suffer a bite in order for the infection to develop. This is why according to public health recommendations, people should go to the hospital or call their physician right after being bitten by a bat or any other wild animal.

If you didn’t know, some countries allow people to get a free vaccination shot against rabies. If you work in an environment where you might be exposed to the disease in some way or the other or if you are a veterinarian, you should get the vaccine, just to be on the safe side of things.

When a dog doesn’t get the vaccine and comes into contact with rabid animals, they have to be confined for a period of at least 10 to 14 days.

The virus enters their system through a wound, so in theory, if your dog steps on a rabid animal’s saliva in the forest and they do not lick their paws, they shouldn’t become infected.

To make sure that your dog doesn’t become exposed to rabies, you should always vaccinate your pooch. Each year, many people die after becoming infected with the virus.  Sadly, it’s completely preventable so, do not put your pet and your family at any risk.

Moreover, if your dog ends up showing any rabies symptoms and they are confined, they could be kept in quarantine for a period of up to six months. As you can imagine, the cost of all of this can be very expensive.

Frequently Asked Questions About Rabies in Dogs

Dog Rabies: A Public Health Threat

Can You Get Rabies From a Dog Bite?

Yes. Getting rabies from a bite is very easy, but it can also happen from a scratch. Some animals might not show any clinical signs at first, but that doesn’t mean that their saliva does not contain the virus.

How Long Can a Dog Have Rabies Before It Dies?

It can differ from one animal to the other. Sometimes, rabies in dogs can last for just 10 days while in other cases, it can last for several months, during which the dog has to be kept away from other humans and animals.

Can You Get Rabies From a Dog Licking You?

Yes. You might have a micro-lesion on your hand without you even realizing it and since your dog’s mouth is full of saliva which can be full of viruses, you can get the infection just through innocent licking.

Can Rabies Be Transmitted Through Eyes?

This actually depends on whether the animal’s saliva reaches your eyes or not. For example, if a dog with furious rabies sputters or spits saliva into your eyes by accident, you might get the infection.

If you are at a significant distance and there is no way the dog manages to get any of their saliva on your face, you might not get the virus.

Are Rabid Dogs Friendly?

It depends on the stage they have reached. After the incubation, some dogs might not show worrying signs. Behavioral changes can be quite noticeable. Some dogs can develop extreme aggression while others can be withdrawn and very quiet.

Final Thoughts

As a final note, if your dog shows any signs of rabies whatsoever, get in touch with your local Animal Control and your veterinarian.

Alpha Paw Sale
author image

Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Cristina Vulpe is a board-certified small animal veterinarian. She earned her veterinary degree in 2011 from USAMV in Iasi, Romania, and her PhD in Canine Oncology in 2015 from USAMV in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She is passionate about anything from animal nutrition & welfare to veterinary parasitology & infectious diseases. As a responsible pet parent herself, she enjoys giving reliable medical advice that pet owners can trust, which is why she joined Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts on our mission to help our readers give their pets the happy & healthy lives they deserve.

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