The Risk of Rabies: What Every Pet Owner Should Know

Baby RaccoonAlthough the number of rabies cases in the U.S. among humans has largely been contained, the risk of rabies among animals is still quite real (about 400-500 pets diagnosed annually).

Rabies can be found in every state except Hawaii and can be transmitted to any mammal. Considering it has a nearly always fatal prognosis (>99.9%), learning how to protect your pet is imperative to stopping the spread of this illness.

An Overview of Rabies

Rabies is an infectious virus that attacks the central nervous system and eventually the brain. It’s transmitted through the bite or scratch of an infected host. Rabies can be transmitted to any mammal, including humans, but is most often diagnosed in skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, bats, and domestic dogs and cats.

Once infected, the virus can remain dormant for days or even months, as it works its way through the tissues to the brain. The infection generally progresses in three distinct stages:

Prodromal phase – This phase is when the first symptoms of rabies emerge, which can include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, behavioral changes, and chewing at the site of the bite or scratch.

Furious phase – Often associated with the “mad dog” stereotype, aggression is a key feature of this phase, as well as anxiety, erratic behavior, pupil dilation, disorientation, and seizures. Death can occur as a result of the seizures in this phase.

Paralytic phase – The final phase of rabies can last 2-3 days. Symptoms include inability to swallow, drooling or “foaming” of saliva, muscular paralysis, and death.

There is no cure for rabies in pets, which is why the team at Pet Medical Center – Chatoak stresses the importance of keeping current with your pet’s vaccinations. In fact, the rabies vaccine is so important to public health that nearly all states – including California – require it for cats and dogs over the age of 3 months.

Minimizing the Risk of Rabies

Vaccination is the only true defense for rabies. The rabies vaccine is available in 1-year and 3-year forms, and proof of the vaccine is sent to animal control (the agency responsible for pet registration and identification).

Although encountering a rabid animal may seem far-fetched, there is still a risk of exposure, even in our cities. This is because wildlife, especially skunks, raccoons, and coyotes, have adapted to urban areas, making zoonotic diseases more concerning problem among pet populations.

Play it safe by maintaining your pet’s vaccination schedule (do not let vaccines lapse) and by taking the following precautions:

  • Avoid feeding your pet outside. Bring food bowls indoors since curious critters will be attracted to the smell and opportunity for a free meal.
  • Use wildlife-proof trash bins.
  • Take caution when out on the trail or in a natural area with your dog. Keep him or her leashed.
  • Discourage your dog from chasing or barking at wildlife.
  • See a veterinarian immediately if your pet is scratched, bitten, or injured by a wild or stray animal.

Understandably, rabies is one of the most frightening infectious diseases among pets. However, with regular vaccinations and common sense precautions, your four-legged friend can remain safe and healthy.