While it can in theory affect any warm-blooded mammal, it is most prevalent in wild animals due to the absence of vaccination.
Rabies in dogs is uncommon in areas where canines are properly vaccinated, but even a vaccination cannot ever offer complete protection.
Rabies is reported to kill 50,000 people per year worldwide, and countless millions of animals, so it is critical to understand the signs and symptoms of rabies, and how best to protect yourself and your pets.
What are the Symptoms of Rabies in Dogs?
Rabies in dogs goes through three distinct phases, known as Prodomal, Furious and Paralytic.
The first symptoms of rabies seen in dogs are severe changes in behaviour. Previously friendly dogs may seek solitude, for example. Dogs may go off their food or develop a fear of water. They may also become short-tempered, restless or irritable.
Within a few days, however, the infection moves on to the second phase, where even docile dogs become increasingly aggressive. They may nip or bite with worrying regularity, potentially infected their owner or other household pets.
In the final stages paralysis can set in. The mouth and throat can be affected, resulting in the classic “foaming mouth” symptom. The rear legs may also give out, making walking near impossible. Typically within a few days the animal will pass into a coma and die soon afterwards.
It is no understatement, therefore, to say that rabies is a tremendously dangerous disease in dogs. Worse, there is no guaranteed way to confirm a rabies infection while the patient is alive. The only proven technique requires the taking of brain tissue samples after death so it is critical for all dog owners to be constantly vigilant about the changes mentioned above lest they point to a rabies infection.
How Does a Dog Get Rabies?
Dogs get rabies from other infected animals. This may be another infected dog in the neighbourhood into which your dog has come into contact, or from a wild animal. Foxes, bats and raccoons are all examples of hosts found regularly to suffer from rabies infections.
The most common source of infection is a bite from a rabid animal, though less commonly the disease can be spread through scratches, or from the virus coming into contact with their mucus membranes.
This means that prevention of rabies is essentially a two-pronged exercise. Firstly, all dogs should be vaccinated against the risk of infection. Secondly, dogs should not be allowed to roam freely, where they can come into contact with infected animals.
In cases where rabies in dogs is suspected, owners should take great care to avoid being bitten or otherwise coming into contact with the saliva of an infected animal. If in doubt, gloves and protective clothing should be worn when dealing with potentially rabid creatures.
How Long Does it Take for a Dog to Show Signs of Rabies?
An interesting trait of the rabies virus is that it can take time to show in dogs. The virus enters most commonly at a wound caused by an infected animal, and slowly makes its way up the nerves to the brain and spinal cord. It is at this point that clinical symptoms can be observed. In dogs, this normally takes 2-8 weeks, though infected dogs may still be able to pass on the disease before displaying symptoms themselves.
In humans it is not unheard of for the virus to take some months between infection and showing signs of rabies.
How Long Can Dogs Live with Rabies?
Rabies is not a slow and steady disease. While it may take 2-8 weeks for symptoms to show in dogs, once these symptoms are present the dog likely has no more than weeks to live. There is currently no known cure once symptoms set in, and treating such animals is highly dangerous for the veterinarians involved. As rabid dogs cause a very real potential threat to humans and other animals, when a case has been confirmed the animal is normally euthanized as soon as possible.
Is Rabies Fatal to Humans?
As in all animals, rabies is likely fatal over the long term. Once symptoms are showing there is typically very little that can be done to cure the victim.
That said, scientists believe that not all potential infections actually develop into the disease. It seems that only 15-20% of bites actually result in the victim becoming infected.
It is critical, therefore, if you or your pet are believed to have come into contact with a rabid animal that medical care is sought as quickly as possible – certainly before clinical symptoms show. Even formerly vaccinated dogs should receive a booster under such circumstances to minimize the chances of them developing the disease.
Can Rabies be Cured?
Sadly, rabies cannot currently be cured through medication. A few infected people have managed to beat the disease with heavy medical care, but the odds are against it. In general, once symptoms are showing in dogs or humans the end result is already (unfortunately) known.