September 28 is World Rabies Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the risk of rabies to humans and animals around the world. Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system and is spread by contact with saliva or blood of an infected animal. In the United States, it is estimated that there are about 400 cases of the disease in domestic animals each year.

In 2017 here in Virginia, there were over 200 cases of rabies, mostly in wild animals but there were 22 reported cases in cats and one dog. However, rabies can be prevented in your furry friends by taking a few necessary precautions.

How to Prevent Rabies in Your Cat or Dog

The best and easiest way to protect your pets from being infected is to keep their rabies vaccine up to date. Here in Virginia, it is required by law to have all cats and dogs four months and older vaccinated, and to be vaccinated every year until age two, and then every three years. It is critical to check with your primary care veterinarian to ensure your pet is up to date on all their vaccines.

Keep puppies and kittens indoors or as close to home as possible until they are old enough to receive their shots.

Avoid Contact with Wildlife

In addition to vaccines, keep your pets away from all wildlife including dead and injured animals. A dead raccoon or bat can still transmit disease.

As always, keep your dog on a short leash while outdoors to avoid fights with other dogs or wild animals. The most common carriers of rabies are foxes, raccoons, skunks, and bats. Since most of these animals are nocturnal, keep your pets (including cats) indoors at night.

Signs and Symptoms of Rabies

Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies and that is why prevention is critical for your furry family member.

Rabies is often transmitted through a bite from another animal. Once the virus enters the body of a cat or dog, it replicates in the cells of the muscles and spreads to the closest nerve fibers before traveling to the central nervous system via the fluid within the nerves. It can take up to a month after transmission to develop, but once symptoms begin, the virus progresses rapidly and often fatally.

There are two types of rabies:

  • Paralytic – weakness, loss of coordination, and then paralysis
  • Furious – abnormal behavior including extreme aggressiveness and attack behavior

In the first stage of the disease, the symptoms might be inconspicuous in both cats and dogs, but, after a few days, rabies progresses either to the paralytic form then furious, or just to furious.

Rabies Symptoms in Dogs and Cats

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Pica – eating non-food items
  • Lack of coordination
  • Paralysis
  • Drop jaw
  • Unusual shyness or aggression
  • Excessive salivation
  • Inability to swallow
  • Changes in attitude and behavior including excessive excitability
  • Hydrophobia
  • Changes in tone of bark (dogs)

Rabies can be transmitted only once the infected animal shows clinical signs. The only way to test for the disease is to examine the brain tissue of an animal with suspected infection after it has died.

What to Do If Your Pet Has Been Exposed to Rabies

If your pet has been recently bitten or attacked by another animal, seek veterinary care immediately. If you suspect the animal that attacked your pet has rabies or is a common carrier of the disease, tell your veterinarian and work with their office to determine who will contact the local animal control.

If your pet has been exposed to rabies, seek veterinary attention. Treatment and recommendations will be provided based on your pet’s rabies vaccination status under guidance from the Bureau of Animal Control.

Rabies is fatal in unvaccinated animals. Regrettably, humane euthanasia is strongly recommended for unvaccinated dog or cats that are exposed and/or injured by a rabid or potentially rabid animal.

That is why updated rabies vaccines can save your pet’s life. If you suspect your pet has been exposed to the disease, quick medical intervention is critical. Call your veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital and let them know you are on your way over. And, without getting bitten yourself, put your pet safely into a crate, cage, or carrier before heading to seek care. It is also is important to clean any surface your pet might have touched to remove any infected saliva.

If you have come in contact with an animal with rabies, please consult your physician as the disease can be transmitted to humans as well.

Rabies is a deadly and scary disease but can be prevented. We hope our tips help keep you and your pet safe and healthy!

Remember, if your pet needs emergency or critical care, The COVE is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.