Dog & Cat

Rabies is a uniformly fatal infection that causes neurological signs in infected animals. Rabies virus is maintained in various wildlife reservoirs around the world and can affect any mammal. In the United States, the most commonly infected wildlife species are bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. Rabies can be prevented in dogs and cats by vaccination. Rabies is caused by a virus that is most commonly transmitted through saliva via a bite wound. The rabies virus spreads from the site of entry along nerves to the central nervous system and then to the salivary glands. Once in the central nervous system, the virus causes damage to nerves cells and to nerves that supply various tissues.

Neurological dysfunction is the main manifestation of rabies. Initially, affected animals may appear anxious or restless. Animals may become irritable and aggressive and may bite or attack without provocation. Disorientation, weakness, and wobbly gait are usually seen. These signs may last a few days, and then seizures may occur, which may then be followed by death.

History of a recent bite wound or other exposure to a potentially rabid animal, in combination with the clinical signs listed, are suggestive of rabies. A diagnosis of rabies should be considered in any animal with neurological signs that has a history of possible exposure to a rabid animal. No good diagnostic test is available to definitively diagnose rabies in a living animal. Testing of brain tissue after euthanasia remains the best diagnostic test. Testing of brain tissue is done at state diagnostic laboratories.

If you suspect an animal has rabies, exercise extreme caution when handling it to avoid exposure to saliva or other bodily fluids. It is very important to avoid being bitten. Any bite wounds should be washed as soon as possible with warm soapy water. Animals exposed to rabies must be carefully examined and then placed under close observation or quarantined. State and local municipalities have laws regarding rabies control, including vaccination requirements and rules for handling domestic animals exposed to rabies. 

Rabies is uniformly fatal. It is imperative that dogs be vaccinated for this disease in accordance with local and state regulations.


Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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