Understanding Dog Rabies

Dog rabies is a serious, deadly illness that is contagious to humans. Dogs usually get rabies when they're bitten by an animal who's infected with it. A number of different animals are vulnerable to rabies infection, including cats, skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and bats. Since many dogs are frequently outdoors and may come into contact with wild animals, and since the rabies virus is deadly and contagious to humans, rabies vaccinations are required by law in the United States.

Transmission of the Rabies Virus

The rabies virus can't survive for very long outside of the body of its host. It's able to live for less than 24 hours in a carcass or outside of a host animal's body. Therefore, rabies is usually transmitted when an infected animal bites a non-infected animal, though in some cases it can be spread when a non-infected animal kills and eats an infected animal.

Symptoms and Phases of Rabies Infection

Dog rabies incubates for about three to eight weeks in most dogs, though there have been cases of incubation periods lasting as long as six months in dogs. Once the incubation period has passed, the rabid dog will pass through one or more of the disease's three phases.

The first phase of rabies infection is known as the prodromal phase. This phase lasts two or three days in dogs. Symptoms include:

  • Apprehension
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Desire for solitude
  • Fever

During this stage of the disease, drastic personality changes can occur. Aloof, hostile animals may suddenly become very affectionate and friendly. Friendly animals may become violent.

The second phase of rabies infection is known as the furious phase. Not all animals undergo this phase, but in dogs it can follow the prodromal phase and last one to seven days. Symptoms include:

  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Viciousness
  • Disorientation, seizures and death

The third phase of rabies infection is known as the paralytic, or dumb, phase. Animals may begin this phase immediately after the prodromal phase, or they may pass through the furious phase first. Usually, the paralytic phase begins two to four days after the first symptoms of rabies infection begin.

In the paralytic phase, dogs lose control over the nerves of the head, chest and throat. They lose the ability to swallow and may drool excessively. Labored breathing and a dropped jaw may occur. Eventually, the rabid dog suffers respiratory failure and death.

Dangers and Consequences of Rabies Infection

Rabies is a deadly disease that's contagious to humans. The only way to diagnose an animal with rabies is to examine the brain beneath a microscope. There is no cure for rabies and, once infected, the victim almost always dies. Cases of survival are very rare, and even human victims require intensive medical care if they are to have any chance of surviving the virus.

Luckily, rabies vaccinations for dogs and other pets are available, and they are also available to humans who are at risk for exposure to rabies. Rabies vaccinations are effective for one to three years, depending on the type of vaccine administered, and dogs are required by law to have them.