What Is Rabies? All About This Infamous Infection

What Is Rabies?
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Rabies is a scary topic that most pet parents probably don't even want to think about. Nonetheless, it is important to know the seriousness of this disease, and how you can prevent your pet from falling victim. Learn more here.

What is rabies? We all know that it is dangerous -- the word alone can send a shiver down your spine, calling to mind visions of swarming bats and foaming mouths. While it is true that rabies is much less common than it once was, it’s still out there, taking lives every year. This article will cover what you need to know about rabies, and how to protect your pet.

Rabies is a disease caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. This virus infects the central nervous system and interrupts its functioning, resulting in damage to the brain and ultimately death.

How Is Rabies Spread?

Any mammal -- including humans -- can contract the rabies virus. The virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal, and in most cases, via a bite. According to the CDC, the majority of rabies cases reported each year occur in wild animals such as bats, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and foxes.

Rabies Symptoms in Animals

Since rabies affects the central nervous system, animals often exhibit behavioral symptoms in addition to the physical ones, and it is important to keep an eye out for both. Symptoms of rabies may include:

  • Excessive drooling or foaming at the mouth
  • Paralysis of the tongue
  • Agitation or aggression
  • Unsteadiness or disorientation
  • Hallucinations (e.g., animal may snap at imaginary objects)
  • Self-mutilation or harm
  • Partial paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Wild animals might seem tame or unafraid of humans

If you or your pet are ever bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary attention immediately. Unfortunately, once the symptoms of rabies appear, survival is unlikely.

How Common Is Rabies?

Rabies in domesticated animals used to be much more common than it is today. Before 1960, the majority of rabies cases occurred in domesticated animals. Now, thanks to vaccinations, more than 90% of all rabies cases reported to the CDC occur in wildlife.

In the last 100 years, human deaths from rabies in the United States have fallen from 100+ a year down to 2 or 3. Again, this is due to widespread vaccination of domesticated animals, as well as better post-exposure care.

The Rabies Vaccine

Fortunately, this life-threatening disease is preventable. Dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock should be vaccinated and regularly given boosters according to a schedule set by your veterinarian. Dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock can receive their first vaccination at around three months of age.

In humans, the rabies vaccine is only administered post-exposure (i.e., following a bite from an infected animal).

Rabies Vaccine Laws

Most states regulate the rabies vaccine and require it for domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, and ferrets. As such, most kennels and boarders won’t look after a pet without proof of vaccination.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has a chart of rabies laws by state.

Even if your state does not require the rabies vaccine, it is better to be on the safe side and keep your pet up to date with immunizations.

More on Vaccinating Pets

Reasonable Pet Vaccination Costs
All About Vaccinating Your Dog
Your Puppy Vaccination Schedule
Cat Vaccinations: What To Expect

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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