Rabies In Dogs

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM May 29, 2020

With stories like Old Yeller and Cujo it’s no wonder that many of us fear rabies. But is this disease really as bad as it’s made out to be? Yes! First of all, rabies is everywhere. Not only that, it can infect any mammal, including your dog and you. Plus it’s nearly 100% fatal. So, what can you do about it? Let’s find out.

What Is Rabies?

Rabies is an infection caused by the rabies virus. The virus progressively infects the brain and spinal cord of any mammal. There is no treatment, once symptoms show up it’s fatal. Rabies virus is found throughout the world, in nearly every state in the U.S. and on nearly every continent. It’s responsible for the death of millions of animals and thousands of humans worldwide every year.

How Do Dogs Get Rabies?

The rabies virus is mainly secreted in the saliva of infected animals, making a bite the most common means of transmission. However, saliva coming in contact with open wounds or scratches can happen as well, such as through a lick or drool.

Rabies is harbored in the wildlife population, making a dog that regularly mingles with skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats the highest at risk. It’s not uncommon for dogs to encounter these animals when out on a hike, or in some cases, your own backyard. Since dogs don’t always know how to act around wildlife, they may scare them causing the critter to scratch or bite and transmit rabies or other diseases to your dog.

In our domestic animals, cats actually have the highest percentage of rabies infections making your feline friend a possible risk to your pup as well.

What Are The Symptoms Of Rabies In Dogs?

Once the rabies virus enters a dog’s body, it can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months before signs and symptoms appear. For most dogs, the incubation period is between two weeks to four months. The wide period range is due to the amount of time the virus takes to travel to the brain or spinal cord where it does damage. Incubation periods can be affected by where the bite is. The closer to the brain or spinal cord, the quicker the problems show up. It is also affected by the severity of the bite and the amount of virus that made it inside the body.

Once the incubation period is over and the rabies virus has moved into the central nervous system, the disease goes through the prodromal phase and manifest as either furious rabies or dumb rabies.

  • Prodromal phase

This phase lasts two to three days. It includes a change in temperament with normally quiet and kind dogs becoming agitated and aggressive, or active dogs becoming nervous, shy, and reclusive. Wild animals may lose their fear of humans, and normally nocturnal animals may come out during the day. Basically, think of this phase as a complete opposite change in behavior from what is normal. From here, the disease can take one of two courses.

  • Furious rabies

This is the type of rabies that most of us associate with the disease. It’s portrayed in the movies and books in which a dog becomes overly aggressive and bites at any movement, touch, or noise. Dogs may never relax and instead always remain alert and tense, and always ready to jump or fight. They may eat dirt, rocks, or other inedibles. Eventually, furious rabies will lead to seizures, muscle incoordination and loss of muscle function with death finally occurring due to progressive paralysis.

  • Dumb rabies

This form of rabies is actually the most common one we see in dogs. With dumb rabies, these dogs rarely become vicious and aggressive like the furious form. Instead, they experience progressive paralysis starting with the jaw and throat muscles causing them to paw at their mouth as if they have something caught in their teeth. The lower jaw may droop causing them to drool excessively. Drool can be a major danger for transmitting the disease to humans since we often step in and try to help. The paralysis spreads throughout the entire body, eventually leading to death within a couple of hours.

How Long Can A Dog Live With Rabies?

Since there is such a variation in the incubation period of rabies, there is also a variation in the amount of time a dog can live with rabies. Some dogs can be infected and live several months before showing any symptoms of the disease. Other dogs will show signs within 10 days of infection. Once a dog shows clinical signs of rabies, the disease progresses very quickly and most are dead within a few days or a few hours.

Is Rabies Treatable In Dogs?

Rabies infections are nearly 100% fatal. Once an animal shows clinical signs, the damage to the central nervous system has happened and there is nothing that can be done. With the incubation period of the virus, it is often not known that a dog has become infected until they start showing signs, so you can see where the trouble lies here.

However, there are a few documented cases of dogs that lived after receiving a bite from a rabid animal. In these cases, the animal that bit was diagnosed with rabies and treatment was started immediately, before the virus had a chance to move into the brain or spinal cord. Treatment consists of giving both a rabies antiserum, which contains antibodies to the rabies virus, and a rabies vaccination so that the dog’s body starts to produce its own rabies antibodies.

Dogs that have survived rabies most likely received a very small amount of the rabies virus during transmission and treatment was given immediately.

Can Rabies In Dogs Be Prevented?

Fortunately, rabies in our domestic animals has been fairly well controlled in most developed countries through the use of vaccines. Vaccinations work by injecting your dog with a modified form of the rabies virus that is unable to cause disease. Then the body responds by producing antibodies to the virus so that it is ready to fight the virus should a dog ever come in contact with rabies. Vaccines are only effective if they’re given before the virus enters the central nervous system, and work best if given on a regular basis to keep antibody production up and running.

Dogs should be vaccinated for rabies starting at 12 weeks of age. Most veterinarians prefer to administer the rabies vaccine with the final round of puppy shots at 16 weeks. A booster shot is given after one year and then every one to three years following depending on the pup’s location and the type of vaccine used. Rabies vaccinations are so important and effective that many cities require proof of them before they’ll issue a license. Rabies vaccinations are also required for interstate and international travel.

Rabies vaccinations also become important if your dog happens to bite somebody else. Even if rabies isn’t really a concern, your dog’s vaccination status will greatly change the quarantine period and other protocol that has to occur following a bite.

Other rabies preventive measures would be to keep your dog away from wildlife, mainly skunks, raccoons, bats, and foxes. Always keep your dog on a leash when in the woods and fence your yard so these critters can’t come in. Avoid any animal, wild or domestic, that is acting differently, such as being aggressive or extra friendly. 

Can A Vaccinated Dog Still Get Rabies?

Generally, the rabies vaccine for animals is very effective. However, it needs to be given properly and kept up to date. Again, the vaccine is only effective if it’s given before the rabies virus reaches the central nervous system. Dogs that have been previously vaccinated but haven’t been kept up to date are more at risk of developing the disease if exposed to rabies than those that are current.

Can Humans Get Rabies From A Dog Bite?

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animal to human. A bite from an infected animal that breaks the skin can transmit rabies to a human. Also, rabies is capable of infecting all mammals, including humans.

Humans can also get rabies by coming in contact with saliva from an infected animal. For example, if we see our dog struggling like they have a bone stuck in their mouth, as seen with dumb rabies, then we put ourselves at risk of exposure to rabies by trying to help. All that is needed for the infected saliva to get in is a scratch or a break in the skin.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Dog Has Rabies

Most of the time a suspicion of rabies follows a bite by another dog or wild critter. If this happens to your dog, call your veterinarian and health department immediately. They will walk you through the next steps. If the animal that bit is still running around, you may want to contact local animal control officers or the sheriff’s department as well.

First and foremost, wear gloves when handling your dog. You don’t want to risk transmission to you through their saliva. If your dog is current on their rabies vaccinations, your vet will administer a booster and observe your dog for 45 days to see if they develop clinical signs. For unvaccinated dogs that are exposed to rabies, euthanasia is recommended. However, if this isn’t an option, the dog will be quarantined for six months to be monitored for clinical signs and vaccinated before release.

If possible, it’s always best to test the animal that bit your dog. If that animal comes back negative, then no further measures need to be taken. However, there is no accurate test for rabies in live animals. Testing requires brain tissue, which means animals have to be euthanized first. For bite cases where the biting culprit isn’t found and tested, then rabies is determined by the rabies prevalence in your area. So depending on where you live, your dog is suspected to have rabies until proven otherwise.

What To Do If You’re Exposed To Rabies

If you are bitten by a dog or other animal with a suspicion of rabies, call your doctor. Then wash the wound immediately with soap and water. Contact the health department to report the bite as well. Your doctor may require you go through a series of rabies antiserum injections followed by vaccination.

For people like veterinarians or animal control personnel, consider getting vaccinated against rabies. This requires a series of three injections with titer testing periodically to monitor your body’s response. It could help save your life someday.


Rabies is a very serious disease that nearly causes 100% fatality. Preventative measures such as avoiding any wildlife or domestic animal that is acting out of the ordinary will help. Get animal control involved when needed. Last, if you don’t want your dog’s story to end like Old Yeller or Cujo, then get your dog routinely vaccinated for rabies no matter what the risk is in your area.

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