Rabies 101 and Your Dog

Rabies!  The very word is enough to strike fear in most dog owner’s hearts.  Since rabies is fatal to mammals, it is treated very seriously by health authorities and the incidence is low in the United States and Canada.  Other countries have a higher incidence, though, and wild animals lurk in even very urban areas.  It pays to know the facts about rabies in dogs and other animals.

Rabies is a fatal viral infection of the central nervous system, including the brain.  It is most often transmitted through a bite from an infected animal, although it can be spread when saliva, blood, or other bodily fluids from an infected animal enter a break in a mammal’s skin or mucus membranes.  That means that if your dog is in a fight with a wild animal, care should be taken in handling your dog until he is given a bath and the blood and saliva from that animal are washed off or you could be exposed.

Animals in North America that most often transmit rabies are skunks, raccoons, coyotes, gray foxes and arctic foxes.  While any mammal can transmit rabies, these animals are the ones most likely to pose a problem.  Rabid animals present with one of two sets of symptoms.  Most commonly, the animal presents with aggression, attacking for no reason or being out during the day when it is normally nocturnal.  It loses its’ fear of humans and dogs and may come much closer to human homes than normal.  As symptoms progress, the animal has difficulty swallowing, fever, and fear of water.  This animal is quite obviously ill and will die soon.

The lethargic form of rabies is less well known but just as deadly.  The animal appears confused, may walk in circles, and also may lose his fear of humans.  This animal is easy prey and could be caught by most dogs, exposing them and their owners to the disease.  Again, any nocturnal animal seen during the day, such as a skunk or raccoon, is suspect.

If you live in town, report suspicious animals to animal control and keep your dogs away from them.  If you live in the country, destroying the animal and burning the carcass removes the risk to your dogs.  Harsh, but true — a rabid animal is such a danger that extreme measures are warranted.  In fact, in one study, 98% of skunks seen during the day were rabid.  Of course, dusk is when they naturally come out, but sick animals will often come out in broad daylight, much like brazen robbers.

The best protection against rabies, however, is to get your pets vaccinated at the recommended frequency.  More and more states are allowing the three year serum for rabies, meaning you only need to get your dog a booster shot every three years after the dog is two years old.

Puppies get their rabies shots between twelve and sixteen weeks of age.  They need a booster shot at one year.  After that, depending on where you live, the dog needs a booster every three years or every year.  States with high incidence of rabies may still require a booster every year.  The theory is that even if one year the shot does not produce the desired immune response, there will still be residual immunity from past years.

Rabies shots can only be given by a licensed veterinarian.  Vaccines are fragile things, and mishandling can render them worthless.  Buying shots at a store and giving them yourselves just isn’t worth the risk, as well as being illegal.

What happens if your dog gets exposed?  First, if you can safely catch or kill the wild animal attacking your dog, do so.  Do not damage the brain when killing the animal — it must be intact to test for rabies.  If you live in an area with an animal control agency, such as a town, let them catch the animal.  In any case, you should call your animal control or health control agency and report the exposure.  They will collect the carcass or live animal for testing and let you know if it was rabid or not.  You usually know within 72 hours.

In most states, you are required to get your dog a booster shot within 72 hours of a rabies exposure.  If your dog gets bitten by a wild animal, the shot is cheap insurance.  Call your veterinarian and get one.  You will need an extra copy of your rabies certificate to show the animal control or health authorities.

If your dog bites someone, even a minor bite, you are required to show proof of rabies vaccination in the form of a rabies certificate.  Tags are not good enough.  If you do not have proof the dog has had a rabies shot, the dog may be put down and his or her brain sent to the diagnostic lab for rabies testing.  If you have proof of a rabies vaccination, the dog may or may not be quarantined for ten days.

Many if not most communities have a source of low cost or no cost rabies vaccinations.  Animal control can usually tell you what they are.  Rabies vaccinations are considered so important that they are subsidized.  Do not risk your dog’s life, not to mention your own, to save a few dollars.  Get your dog vaccinated.