Rabies is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, with an (almost) 100% fatality rate once symptoms appear. The danger of rabies has been known for over 4,000 years, and while we now have effective vaccines thanks to the efforts of Louis Pasteur and his team in the 1880s, as well as post-exposure prophylaxis (preventative care) for people, there is still no cure for animals and people once they show symptoms of the disease.
World Rabies Day is held on September 28 each year (the anniversary of Louis Pasteur’s death) to raise awareness about rabies prevention, particularly in underserved communities. Let’s learn more about rabies and debunk some of the myths surrounding this lethal disease.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is caused by a virus from the Lyssavirus genus that attacks the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). During the incubation period, which can vary a lot, the virus enters nerve endings surrounding the bite wound (in most cases) and travels through nerve tissue to the brain. It reproduces in brain cells and then travels along nerves to the salivary glands where it appears in saliva. Once the rabies virus enters the brain, animals will start to show symptoms. Except for very rare cases, rabies is always fatal once outward signs of the disease emerge.
Myth: Rabies has been eliminated from the U.S.
Fact: Rabies still exists in the U.S., but infections in pets and people have declined dramatically due to mandated pet vaccinations, wildlife control programs and disease monitoring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been monitoring rabies cases since it became a nationally notifiable disease in 1944. The CDC keeps track of infections in people, pets, livestock and wildlife. Rabies is present in every U.S. state except Hawaii. Worldwide, rabies exists on every continent except Antarctica, with 95% of cases in humans occurring in Africa and Asia.
Myth: All animals can get rabies
Fact: Only mammals can be infected with rabies — not birds, fish, reptiles or amphibians. In the U.S., over 90% of reported rabies cases are in wildlife, most commonly raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. Dogs, cats, cattle and horses are the most common domestic animals to be infected with rabies, mostly through contact with infected wildlife.
Myth: All rabid dogs are aggressive
Fact: The etymology (origin) of the word rabies comes from the Latin word rabere which means “to rage.” Lyssavirus comes from the Greek word lyssa which means frenzy or madness. As the names suggest, aggressive behavior is common in animals infected with rabies, but they can show a variety of signs.
During a rabies infection, shy animals may become aggressive and aggressive animals may become friendlier. They can act nervous and constantly lick the bite site. Wild animals may lose their fear of humans or display odd behaviors, like nocturnal animals being active during the day.
As the disease progresses, animals may become sensitive to light and noises, become vicious or agitated, bite at imaginary objects and have seizures. The final stage of the disease is paralysis of the nerves controlling the head and throat. Animals will drool a lot because they can no longer swallow. Eventually the chest muscles are paralyzed and the animal can no longer breathe, causing respiratory failure then death.
Myth: Rabies is only transmitted through bites
Fact: The rabies virus is secreted in saliva. So although bites are the most common method of transmission, rabies can also be transmitted if saliva from an infected animal comes in contact with an open skin wound or the lining of the eyes, nose or mouth. All infected animals (including people) can only transmit the rabies virus after they show symptoms of the disease.
Myth: Blood tests can tell if dogs have rabies
Fact: Rabies cannot be diagnosed in dogs that are alive, and you can’t tell a dog has rabies just by looking at them. The only way to confirm a rabies infection in dogs is to examine brain tissue under a microscope. Rabies can be diagnosed in living people but it requires several tests (not just a blood test) to confirm a diagnosis.
Myth: Dogs infected with rabies can be cured
Fact: There is no treatment available for dogs infected with rabies. It is always fatal for unvaccinated dogs, usually within 10 days of showing symptoms. That’s why vaccinating dogs is so important. People can receive rabies post-exposure prophylaxis if they have been exposed to rabies. It consists of a dose of human rabies immune globulin and the rabies vaccine given on days 0, 3, 7 and 14 post-exposure.
Myth: You can’t prevent rabies infections in dogs
Fact: Dogs who are up-to-date on their rabies vaccine are very unlikely to develop the disease. Vaccination is the best way to prevent rabies infection in dogs and is required by law in many U.S. states. Staying current with your dog’s rabies vaccine will ensure they’re receiving the best protection possible. Rabies vaccines are available as an annual vaccination or one vaccination every three years. Your veterinarian will determine the best vaccination schedule for your dog.
Rabies is a scary disease, but it is also preventable. Keeping your dog (and cat) up-to-date on their rabies vaccination is the best way to keep your pet and your family safe. It’s also important to reduce the likelihood of your dog coming into contact with wildlife, especially bats, racoons, skunks and foxes. Making your yard uninviting for wildlife and keeping your dog inside at nighttime and when you’re not supervising them can help with this.
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