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You may have only heard about dogs getting rabies from the Disney classic “Old Yeller.” But while this tragic tale may not seem likely in today’s world, rabies is still very much a threat to dogs who are unvaccinated.

By learning about rabies, you can keep your dog safe from this deadly disease and ensure they live a happy, healthy, and long life.

Why Rabies Is Dangerous for Dogs and Humans

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it’s infectious and transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa. It has high fatality rates—once symptoms become noticeable, there is almost a 100% chance it’s going to result in death.

“If a dog is bitten by an infected animal, the chances of becoming infected are very high,” says registered veterinarian Dr. Corinne Wigfall, BVM BVS, of SpiritDog Training. “The infection period can vary, but is usually two to four weeks, and owners are sometimes not aware that their dog has been bitten, increasing the risk of other dogs and people becoming infected also. The main cause of human deaths from rabies is being bitten by dogs.”

Wigfall also says that the chance of survival for infected dogs is very low. While there were a few reported cases of dogs that have survived rabies, it’s hypothesized that it’s because the amount of rabies virus in the saliva when the dog was bitten was low, which reduced the load of virus transmitted.

In most cases, a dog will die as a result of rabies because there is currently no treatment, according to Dr. Jamie Richardson, BVetMed, who is medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary. If rabies is discovered, the dog will be euthanized.

How Do Dogs Typically Get Rabies?

Since most dogs in the United States are vaccinated against rabies, it’s not likely that your dog will contract it from another canine. Richardson says that the highest risk comes from wild animals such as skunks, foxes, raccoons, and bats.

“The most common way dogs become infected is via a bite from the rabid animal, as they secrete large amounts of the virus in their saliva,” she says. “However, rabies can also be transmitted if the infected animal’s saliva comes into contact with a scratch, an open wound, or areas like the mouth, eyes, or nose.”

Mixed breed dog laying down outdoors.
©coreyrada -

Signs of Rabies in Dogs

Rabies will affect your dog’s nervous system. Wigfall says that signs include major behavior changes like becoming very agitated, easily stimulated, fearful, and aggressive. Some dogs may attempt to bite, show their teeth, bark, and react violently and aggressively in any situation. As the disease progresses, seizures, paralysis, and, eventually, death will occur.

What to Do if You Think Your Dog Has Rabies

If you believe your dog has rabies, Wigfall advises isolating your dog immediately to a kennel or room and having no further contact until you call your veterinarian.

“They will be able to advise on your next steps and may even choose to transport your dog to an assessment facility themselves to minimize the risk of injury to others. As the disease is zoonotic, extreme caution and care must be taken when handling dogs suspected of having rabies.”

Richardson says that you should never come in contact with your dog’s saliva if you suspect rabies transmission has occurred. Once you get your dog out of the house, it’s critical to disinfect any areas your dog may have infected, particularly with saliva. You can use a 1:32 dilution (4 ounces to a gallon) of household bleach solution to inactivate the virus quickly.

If you witness your vaccinated dog getting bitten by an animal that could be rabid, Richardson says you should take them to your veterinarian immediately for a booster vaccine. “This helps to strengthen the dog’s immunity to rabies and reduces the chances of the virus developing. Do not wait for symptoms, as it will be too late.”

Preventing Rabies in Dogs

Thankfully, if you vaccinate your dog regularly against rabies, you can protect them. Richardson says to keep in mind that most states require dogs to get rabies vaccines. Your pup should be initially vaccinated between 12 to 16 weeks of age and given boosters at regular intervals. This usually happens every year or every three years—the frequency will depend on your state laws.

Additionally, Richardson suggests not allowing your dog to roam off the leash, especially in wooded areas with wild animals. Avoid contact with unknown animals that are alive or dead, especially animals that display unruly behavior or that seem unusually tame, unafraid of humans, or friendly. Feeding your dog indoors and animal-proofing your trash can also help prevent your dog from getting rabies.

Better Safe Than Sorry

By taking preventative measures like vaccinating your pup at the right intervals and protecting them from rabies-carrying wildlife, you can help ensure they don’t fall victim to this devastating disease.
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