How to Spot Rabies Signs in Dogs

Learning to spot rabies signs in dogs is a must for everyone, whether you own a pet or not. Rabies is a fatal illness that spreads through contact with infected animals. Learn to spot an infected dog, and you'll be able to protect yourself and your family from exposure.

Rabies Shots Are a Must
Dogs that receive regular rabies shots, either annually or every three years, depending on the type of vaccine used, are safe from contracting the rabies virus, even if they become bitten by a rabid animal. If your pet is bitten by a rabid or wild animal, contact your vet immediately as your dog may need a booster shot.

Despite warnings to pet owners regarding the seriousness of contracting rabies, not all dogs are vaccinated against the rabies virus. Because dogs are naturally curious and still have inbred urges to hunt, canines come into contact with rabid animals more often than cats or any other family pet.

To be on the safe side, make sure your dog receives updated rabies shots and that both you and your pet avoid contact with wild animals, especially animals that exhibit signs of illness or appear to be rabid.

Rabies Is Fatal
Rabies is fatal in dogs that have not been vaccinated. Canine rabies can be passed on to an unsuspecting human through an infected dog's saliva. If a human comes in contact with a rabid dog, the rabies virus can easily be transferred from the saliva through a bite or when saliva comes into direct contact with an open wound, such as a scratch, on the human's skin. Rabies is fatal in humans if not diagnosed and treated immediately.

Any and all warm-blooded animals, including humans, are at risk from rabies infection. 

Signs of Rabies in Dogs
Rabid dogs exhibit certain telltale signs that can alert a pet owner to a potentially fatal problem. Once the rabies virus enters the host's body, the infection or virus grows in the muscle tissue, often without outward signs of infection. This is called the incubation period. During this time, the dog may appear fine. As the virus grows it migrates toward the spinal cord and finally to the brain. Depending on the location of the bite, it may take a mere 12 days before the central nervous system is infected, or it may take up to 180 days.

A vaccinated dog that has been bitten by an animal believed to be rabid should be quarantined for 90 days. If the dog has not been vaccinated, and the animal that bit him cannot be found and tested, the dog should be quarantined for six months. If at any time the dog develops symptoms of rabies, the dog must be euthanized. To be sure you are handling the situation correctly, contact your vet immediately if your dog is bitten by another animal.

Three Stages of Rabies Infection
The first stage is called the prodromal phase. Subtle behavioral changes may occur. Because these changes tend to be slight, most dog owners don't suspect that the problem is rabies. The symptoms can last for two to three days and generally grow in intensity as the virus spreads.

While these behavioral changes can be indicative of other illnesses, they are most often the first sign of rabies infection.

  • During the first few days of onset, you may notice a change in the tone of the dog's bark or growl.
  • The dog may chew at the bite site.
  • The dog may run a fever.
  • You may notice a change in the dog's eating habits.
  • The dog may exhibit agitation and want to be left alone.
  • The dog may react opposite to the way he normally acts.

The second stage is called the furious stage. During the second stage, the dog may begin to show disturbing signs that progressively worsen. This stage usually lasts about two to four days. During this time your dog may become vicious or mad.

  • Your dog becomes uncharacteristically aggressive.
  • The dog may begin to chew at anything and everything.
  • The dog's pupils may become dilated.
  • The dog may convulse with seizures or exhibit uncontrollable trembling.

The third stage is called the paralytic or dumb stage. The final phase lasts about two to four days.

  • The dog's lower jaw may hang open.
  • The dog may appear to be choking and be unable to swallow.
  • The dog foams at the mouth, an indication that the virus has reached the saliva and is multiplying at an alarming rate.
  • Paralysis sets in. The hips tend to be the first joints affected by paralysis, which causes the shuffling, dragging motion often seen with rabid animals.

Nothing can be done to save a dog that is displaying any of the symptoms of rabies. If you see these symptoms, quarantine your animal and contact your local animal control department to have it removed. Do not attempt to move or carry the dog on your own, as this puts you at risk for contracting the virus.

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