You may think that rabies is rare, but rabies has been in the news a lot lately. Whether it’s a rabid fox in White Plains, NY or a bizarre beaver in a Philadelphia park, the threat of rabies is real and dangerous. Not only do these seemingly random attacks happen to people, they can also happen to our pets. Rabies is a notorious disease, and is feared for good reason. Once symptoms begin, the disease is rapidly fatal and largely untreatable. Despite available vaccines, every year hundreds of cats and dogs are infected with rabies and die.
Rabies is caused by a virus that is relatively unstable in the environment, meaning that you can’t catch it simply from being in an area that was exposed to a rabid animal. The rabies virus requires contact with mucous membranes or broken skin, and is generally transmitted in bites from infected animals. Wildlife, such as skunks, raccoons, bats, foxes and coyotes are the primary group affected by rabies.
The rabies virus is most frequently transmitted via bites from wildlife. The virus attaches to the local muscle cells around the bite wound and then penetrates the nerves there before ascending to the brain. Once in the brain, the virus can enter body secretions, such as saliva. At this point, the infected animal begins to show symptoms of rabies and can transmit the disease. Incubation is highly variable, but can be as quick as one month and as long as a year or more.
Stages of Disease
Once an animal displays symptoms of rabies, they will usually die within seven to 10 days. Symptoms progress in the following manner:
1) Prodromal Stage. This stage generally happens in the first one-to-two days of disease, and is apparent in a marked change in personality.
2) Excitative Stage. Lasting two-to-three days, this is the classic “mad dog” stage, characterized by bizarre behavior. Affected animals have no fear and suffer from extreme hallucinations.
3) Paralytic Stage. This is the final stage of the disease and may last up to two days. Weakness and paralysis take over the affected animal. When the muscles that control swallowing are affected, drooling or foaming at the mouth will occur. When the muscles that are required for breathing are affected, the animal will succumb.
As always, prevention is key
Preventing rabies, luckily, is pretty easy. Make sure your dogs and cats are up to date on their rabies vaccines. Rabies vaccines are given along with the final round of puppy and kitten vaccines, and are boostered a year after the first dose. After that, dogs generally receive the vaccine every three years, and cats get boostered every one to three years, depending on the kind of vaccine your veterinarian uses.
Avoiding wild animals will help prevent exposure. Keep in mind, though, that rabid animals display very odd behavior and seem to be “looking for a fight.” Never, ever approach a wild animal that is acting bizarrely (including raccoons that are visiting your house during daylight hours). If you notice strange activity, contact your local animal control immediately and keep your pets indoors.