Rabies is a fatal disease that dogs (and humans) contract when an infected animal bites them. Given the seriousness of the illness, if your dog has rabies, the most immediate concern is to make sure they don’t bite anyone and infect them as well.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment to save a dog after they get rabies. The good news is that there are vaccines for your pup that will protect them from contracting this disease.
Because of the public health concern to humans, these vaccinations are legally required in most of the United States. These laws have fortunately made cases relatively rare, with the latest U.S. data reporting only 59 dogs cases in 2016 and 67 cases in 2015.
We can reduce the risk of rabies to ourselves and our pets by making sure our furry friends stay on a proper rabies vaccine schedule.
Read: NYC: Keep Up With Your Dog's Rabies Vaccine
Learn more about rabies in dogs, including how to determine when your dog should be vaccinated.
Signs of rabies in dogs
A rabies diagnosis for your pup is devastating since there is no cure.
“If your dog gets rabies, we can expect it will succumb to the illness and pass away within 10 days once it starts to act sick,” says Dr. Jo Myers, DVM.
Because there is nothing we can do to save a pup once they contract rabies, keeping an eye out for rabies symptoms and identifying them early won’t be enough to save your dog.
“There's no reason to feel like you need to be aware of what the symptoms of rabies are so you can take action, because all you really need to know is to keep your dog vaccinated for rabies,” explains Dr. Myers. “That being said, typical symptoms of rabies virus infection in a dog can include aggressiveness, altered behavior, nervousness, appetite loss, wobbly walking, a stilted gait, being sensitive to light, being disoriented, a change in vocalization, inability to swallow, excessive salivation, weakness, collapse, paralysis, seizures, and coma. Death usually occurs as a result of respiratory failure from paralysis or prolonged seizure activity.”
Rabies symptoms also overlap with symptoms of other diseases, so keep in mind that your pup may be sick with something else if they’re exhibiting any of these symptoms.
When to vaccinate your dog for rabies
Generally speaking, most legislation requires your dog to get a single dose of the vaccine before six months of age, though your vet can give your puppy a single dose of the vaccine as early as 12 weeks old. Whenever they get their first shot, they should be revaccinated a year later and then given boosters every one to three years throughout their adult life.
You can check out the most recent guidelines for canine vaccination schedules here, though your vet will also have this information and will be able to provide the best schedule for your pup depending on their specific needs.
What to do if you suspect your dog has rabies
The recommendations for what to do if you think your pup has rabies varies depending on their vaccination status and whether you have access to the animal that bit your dog. Pawp is also here for you 24/7 if you need help sorting through the options, but here is a general overview of what you should do depending on your dog’s vaccination status.
If your dog is exhibiting signs of rabies but is up to date on their vaccines, it’s important to contact a vet right away, as they may be sick with another disease that requires medical attention.
“It is unlikely that your dog has rabies because the vaccine is so effective, but these are still serious symptoms that warrant emergency medical care,” explains Dr. Myers. “To be on the safe side, take every precaution to avoid being bitten by your dog and make every effort to minimize the number of people exposed to the dog as you seek medical care.”
If your dog is not vaccinated, however, and you think they have rabies, do not touch or approach them and take every precaution to avoid the animal biting anyone.
“Protecting the health and safety of your family and the public is the priority under circumstances like this,” says Dr. Myers. “The bottom line is that it is absolutely critical to avoid allowing any animal suspected of having rabies to bite any people.”
If you can’t approach the dog safely, do not do so and reach out to animal control or your local public health authorities who will safely remove the dog for you.
While rabies is an extremely serious disease, we can circumvent all this worry and potential risk by making sure your dog is vaccinated. Get in touch with your local vet to schedule an appointment today if your pup isn’t vaccinated already.
In addition to the documents below, your local county and state public health departments will also have data on rabies cases in your area.