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How do I know if my dog has rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including dogs. It is spread through the bite or scratch of an infected animal and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Rabies is a risk to both human and animal health, so it is important for dog owners to know the signs of rabies and get their dogs vaccinated.

What are the symptoms of rabies in dogs?

The early symptoms of rabies in dogs can be subtle and easy to miss. Here are some of the most common early signs:

  • Fever
  • Behavior changes – unusual aggression, restlessness, lethargy, or excitability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive drooling or foaming at the mouth

As the disease progresses, more obvious symptoms will develop:

  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis (especially in the throat and jaw muscles)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Inability to eat or drink

Once clinical signs appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal in dogs. However, the earlier rabies is detected, the better the chances of survival with prompt veterinary treatment.

How is rabies transmitted to dogs?

The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals. In over 90% of rabies cases, transmission occurs through the bite of an infected animal. Less commonly, scratches or mucous membrane exposure to saliva can also transmit rabies.

In the United States, wild animals are the most common source of rabies transmission to dogs. Bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes account for over 80% of reported rabid animals.

Rabid dogs themselves can sometimes transmit the virus directly or indirectly to humans and other animals. This is why rabies vaccination is so critical for domestic dogs.

Is rabies preventable in dogs?

Yes! Vaccination is extremely effective at preventing rabies in dogs when given according to veterinary guidelines.

The rabies vaccine is considered a “core” canine vaccine by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). This means it is recommended for all dogs regardless of lifestyle or risk factors.

Puppies should receive their first rabies vaccine at 12-16 weeks of age. They require a second vaccine one year later to develop adequate immunity. After that, rabies vaccination boosters are good for either one or three years, depending on the vaccine used.

Local laws often mandate rabies vaccination on an annual or triennial basis. Even if not mandated, an annual veterinary exam is the best way to ensure your dog’s rabies vaccine remains up to date.

What should I do if I think my dog was exposed to rabies?

Seek veterinary care right away if you believe your dog may have been exposed to a rabid or potentially rabid animal. Your vet is required to report any potential rabies exposures to your local animal control or public health department.

In the United States, public health officials will determine the rabies risk based on your report of the incident. If the risk is deemed significant, your dog may be placed under observation or a 6-month strict quarantine.

If your dog’s rabies vaccine was not up to date at the time of exposure, he or she may need to be euthanized or given post-exposure treatment. This consists of a dose of rabies immune globulin and a series of rabies vaccine boosters over 28 days.

Quarantine and post-exposure protocols are critical to prevent the spread of rabies. It is very important to follow the recommendations of animal control and public health officials after a potential exposure.

How is rabies diagnosed in dogs?

There is no definitive antemortem test for rabies in live dogs. However, a presumptive diagnosis can be made based on the dog’s clinical signs and exposure history.

The most accurate way to diagnose rabies is by postmortem analysis of brain tissue. After euthanasia, the dog’s head or brain is analyzed for the presence of the rabies virus via fluorescent antibody testing.

Saliva and other tissues can also be tested after death but are less reliable than brain tissue samples. Spinal fluid analysis may show abnormalities but does not confirm a rabies diagnosis.

Is there a treatment for rabies in dogs?

There is no effective treatment for rabies once clinical illness begins. For this reason, euthanasia is typically recommended in dogs showing signs of rabies to prevent human exposure and animal suffering.

In rare cases, dogs have survived rabies infection after developing symptoms. This has only occurred following intensive and prolonged hospitalization with supportive care and immunosuppressive drugs.

The Milwaukee Protocol was first introduced in 2004 for a human rabies survivor. A few dogs have survived after undergoing a similar regime of sedation, antivirals, and immune modulation. However, survival is the rare exception rather than the rule.

Prevention is truly the only reliable means of protecting dogs against rabies. Vaccination, prudent pet care practices, and bite avoidance are key to rabies prevention.

What should I do if my dog bites someone?

Seeking medical care for the bite victim should be your first priority if your dog bites a person. Even if your dog is up to date on rabies vaccination, the bite wound needs proper cleaning and may require antibiotics or stitches.

Rabies post-exposure treatment will also be considered for bite victims, especially if the dog’s vaccine status is unknown. For this reason, you must contact authorities about any dog bite incident.

You also need to monitor your dog closely for the next 10 days following the bite. Dogs occasionally incubate rabies for extended periods before showing signs. Though rare, this situation underscores the need for caution following potential rabies exposures.

How can I prevent rabies in my dog?

Here are some key steps for rabies prevention:

  • Vaccinate your dog on schedule – puppy shots followed by boosters in adulthood
  • Avoid contact with wild animals. Do not leave pet food outside that could attract them.
  • Report stray animals in your neighborhood to animal control
  • Keep your dog leashed when outside to minimize wildlife interactions
  • Secure trash cans and eliminate any outside food sources
  • Do not bring your dog to areas with potential rabies reservoirs, like bat caves
  • Avoid contact with any animal exhibiting strange behavior

In the event of a potential rabies exposure:

  • Isolate your dog and contact your veterinarian right away
  • Alert public health authorities regarding the exposure
  • Closely monitor your dog for any signs of illness over the next 6 months
  • Follow official instructions regarding quarantine, boosters, or treatment

Key facts about rabies in dogs

  • Rabies is nearly 100% fatal once clinical signs occur
  • Infection is spread through saliva, usually via animal bites
  • Wildlife are the most common source, especially bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes
  • Vaccination provides robust protection but requires boosters to maintain immunity
  • Seek immediate vet care if rabies exposure is suspected
  • Quarantine and post-exposure prophylaxis may be required after bites
  • Euthanasia is usually recommended once clinical signs develop
  • Bite prevention and control of stray animal populations is key for rabies control

Rabies facts and statistics

Here are some key statistics on rabies prevalence and risk factors in the United States:

  • About 5,000 cases reported annually in wild animals and pets
  • 90% of cases occur in wildlife like bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks
  • Less than 1% of cases occur in domestic dogs and cats each year
  • About 55,000 Americans receive post-exposure prophylaxis annually as a precaution after potential rabies contact
  • 59,000 people worldwide die every year from rabies, mostly due to dog bites in developing nations
  • Less than 5 human rabies deaths occur in the U.S. each year
  • Over 90% of reported human rabies cases stem from bat exposures
  • Unvaccinated dogs are over 30 times more likely to develop rabies than vaccinated dogs

Understanding the real risks, while also staying rational regarding rabies fears, is an important goal. Vaccination, prompt medical care, and bite prevention remain the best tactics for staying safe.

Frequently asked questions about rabies

How common is rabies in the United States?

Rabies has become relatively rare in domestic dogs and cats due to widespread vaccination. Wild animals now account for over 90% of reported rabies cases. Bats are the most common source of human exposures. Overall, rabies exposures and deaths are uncommon compared to developing nations.

What should I do if bitten by a dog?

Seek medical care immediately to properly clean and close the wound. Report the bite to authorities so the dog can be observed or tested for rabies. Be prepared to provide the dog’s vaccine status. Public health officials will determine if you need post-exposure treatment based on the dog’s history and observation.

Can rabies be cured?

No. There is no effective treatment for rabies once clinical signs appear. Aggressive hospitalization has allowed a very small number of human and canine rabies survivors, but this is extremely rare. Prevention remains the only reliable defense against this fatal disease.

How long does it take for rabies symptoms to appear?

The rabies incubation period ranges from two weeks to several months, but is typically 1-3 months. The initial symptoms tend to be subtle but progress rapidly once they appear. Seek care immediately at the first signs of rabies in your pet.

Can you get rabies from a scratch?

Yes, but this is rare. Over 99% of rabies transmissions to humans occur via a bite wound. Scratches mainly pose a risk if there is contamination of mucous membranes with saliva from an infected animal.

Why does rabies cause fear of water (hydrophobia)?

It is not completely understood why rabies creates hydrophobia. One theory points to muscle spasms triggered by swallowing that can make drinking painful. Brain inflammation may also disrupt signals controlling swallowing reflexes and cause fear of water.


Rabies represents a real yet preventable threat to human and animal health. While any mammal can be infected, wildlife reservoirs and unvaccinated dogs pose the highest risk.

Keeping your dog’s rabies vaccine up to date is the best way to protect your pet. But avoidance of wildlife and prompt care for any bite or exposure are also crucial.

Understanding rabies risks rationally, while taking prudent steps to prevent infection, helps protect your canine companion and public health.