Dog: Rabies

General information

Other common/scientific names: furious rabies, hydrophobia

Rabies is a zoonotic infection which causes a fatal encephalitis or infection of the brain. While all mammals are susceptible to rabies, wildlife is the reservoir group where infection occurs most frequently. The most common wildlife species to spread rabies to domestic animals and humans in the Northern Hemisphere are the skunk, bat, raccoon, fox and coyote with raccoons accounting for the highest number of cases. While human cases of rabies have declined dramatically in the last century, 2-3 people die annually in the US from the virus. The reported cases in domestic cats outnumber those in dogs. In 2008, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 294 cases of rabies in cats and 75 cases in dogs.


Rabies is a viral infection caused by a Lyssavirus.


  • The virus causing rabies is usually transmitted from the saliva of an infected animal (usually wildlife) via a bite wound of a non-infected animal (usually domestic animals and humans).
  • While the incubation period of rabies can be quite long, once clinical signs develop, death occurs within 10 days. The virus from the rabid animal’s saliva enters through the bite wound and attaches to the dog’s muscle cells for a couple of days before penetrating the local nerves and beginning the slow ascent to the brain. Once the virus is in the nervous system, the dog’s immune system cannot fight the virus. The virus can remain in the nervous system for anywhere from 10 to 30 days before reaching the brain. Once the virus reaches the brain, it is also present in the saliva and the bitten dog then becomes infective. An infective dog can spread rabies and not show any clinical signs.

Cardinal symptom

Change in behavior


The three stages of rabies are listed below. However the clinical signs are rarely definitive and can mimic other diseases which affect the nervous system. Some animals die rapidly without many clinical signs.

  • Prodromal Stage (1-2 days): Dogs begin to have a change in behavior. Friendly dogs become shy. Shy dogs become friendly. Rabid wild animals may lose their fear of humans.
  • Excitative Stage (2-3 days): This is the “mad dog” stage where the dog has no fear and becomes aggressive. They become irritable and anxious, attempting to bite. The dog can become destructive if caged.
  • Paralytic Stage (1-4 days): In this stage, weakness and paralysis begin. The larynx is paralyzed and the dog is unable to swallow. Drooling and “foaming at the mouth” result. Death results when the dog is unable to breath. Humans are most likely to become exposed during this stage.


There is no test for rabies in the living dog. A dog suspected of having rabies should be euthanized since testing for rabies must be performed on the brain. This testing must be performed at a qualified laboratory, designated by the local or state health department in accordance with established national guidelines.


There is no treatment for rabies.


Rabies is fatal.


Effective vaccination is available for dogs. A puppy should be vaccinated for rabies at 12 to 16 weeks of age. A booster vaccination is required at one year. Subsequent rabies vaccinations are given every 1 to 3 years depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation. Reducing exposure to wildlife is recommended.

Most city, county and state ordinances have dog licensing requirements when vaccinating for rabies to ensure that the community’s dogs are vaccinated.

Click here for more information on canine vaccinations.


If your dog is bitten by a wild animal, call your veterinarian immediately. If your dog bites a person, the county public health department should be contacted. Once a dog develops clinical signs of rabies, death will occur within 10 days. Therefore, a dog must be quarantined for 10 days after biting a person. At the end of quarantine, if the dog is healthy, there is no risk of the person developing rabies.


Rabies is zoonotic meaning it is transmissible to humans. Because of this, canine rabies vaccination is required in most states in the US. People who handle animals should also be vaccinated against rabies.

Update version: 4/24/2014, © Copyright by
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