Rabies in Pets

Once an animal contracts the rabies virus, it cannot be cured. A bite from a wild animal is typically how a pet gets the virus –– and how that pet could then transmit it to a person. Early symptoms of infection include fever and aggression. Later signs include paralysis, seizures and death. Luckily, vaccination is available to prevent this disease.


Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system. All warm-blooded animals –– including wild animals, dogs, cats, and humans –– are susceptible. Though the disease is not common, it remains prevalent in wildlife populations — primarily among raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks — that may have contact with domestic animals.

The virus can have an incubation period lasting from days to months. It’s usually transmitted through contact with the saliva of an infected animal. An animal’s saliva becomes infective once the virus has traveled through the animal’s nervous system from the initial bite site to the brain and, ultimately, to the salivary glands.

Pets and people usually become infected through a bite wound. Once the virus enters the salivary glands, the animal can pass the infection to other animals or humans through saliva. Once clinical signs appear, rabies is generally fatal, which is why any pet that bites a human and has an unknown or out-of-date rabies vaccination status may be subject to quarantine or euthanasia, depending on state laws.

Symptoms and Identification

Clinical signs can be vague and difficult to identify. Signs can progress through several stages and not all infected animals show evidence of all stages.

  • Early signs: Fever, acting nervous or agitated, hiding
  • Later signs: Aggression, increased agitation, erratic behavior
  • End stage: Muscle weakness and paralysis, coma, death

Rabid animals can show unusual agitation or aggression or appear “drunk” or unable to walk. Seizures and drooling may also occur. Drooling may result from paralysis of the throat muscles, preventing swallowing. Once signs appear, death usually occurs within ten days.
Rabies is diagnosed in animals based on clinical signs and postmortem (after death) laboratory testing of brain tissue. Local public health facilities are typically charged with making these diagnoses in conjunction with veterinarians.

Affected Breeds

All dogs and cats appear equally susceptible to the rabies virus.


There is no effective treatment in animals.


Because of the potentially serious human health implications, rabies vaccination of dogs is required by law in virtually all states. Many states also require cats to be vaccinated. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the disease in animals and, in doing so, to safeguard human health.

The rabies vaccination schedule may differ depending on the state. Some states require an initial vaccination at 12 to 16 weeks of age, a second vaccine at 1 year of age, and subsequent revaccinations every 3 years. Some states require annual revaccination.

Other preventive measures include:

  • Keeping pets away from wildlife.
  • Ensuring that all other dogs or cats that pets have contact with are vaccinated.
  • Minimizing contact with stray animals (do not feed stray animals with an unknown vaccination status or allow them to remain near your home and pets).

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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