Rabies Virus: How much do you really know?


Rabies. A disease mentioned constantly by your veterinarian and seen occasionally in the news and media, but what do you really know about it?  It has been my experience that not everyone truly understands rabies virus and the disease it causes.  So, in honor of World Rabies Day (also, my son’s birthday…how fitting!) I am attempting to spread education and awareness on this deadly virus.


1.     What is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus most commonly contracted through the bite of an infected animal. However, because it is transmitted through saliva, it can be contracted (less commonly) by an infected animal licking the open wound of another animal or human.  Only mammals can get rabies: fish, amphibians, birds, and reptiles do not get rabies.  Once the saliva containing rabies virus is transmitted into the tissues of a healthy animal, the virus travels through the nervous system to the brain causing disease which is almost always fatal (there has been 1 case of a human surviving rabies after clinical signs developed).

Worldwide almost 60,000 people die of rabies each year with children being at the greatest risk.  Most of these global human deaths are from rabid dog bites due to the lack of appropriate vaccination programs (Asia, Africa).  In the United States, about 2-3 humans die of rabies each year.  These deaths are usually due to people choosing not to seek medical care - mostly because they did not know they were exposed to rabies.


2.     Signs of disease

Animals infected with rabies exhibit behavioral changes (fear, aggression, uncharacteristic affection) as well as neurological signs such as paralysis, ataxia, and seizures.  Wild animals who lose their fear of humans and those who are out and about during daylight when they are normally nocturnal are suspected to be infected with the rabies virus.  Once signs of disease develop, treatment will not work to stop the progression of disease which is why it iso important to be knowledgeable about this virus!


3.     Rabies is preventable

Rabies is preventable by vaccination.  Household pets (dogs, cats, ferrets) must be vaccinated for the disease, even if they spend 99% of their time indoors.  The most common way rabies is transmitted in the United States is through wild mammals and bats (unlike other countries, we are able to maintain a strict vaccination protocol for our pets).  It is a common misconception that people will know when they are bitten by a bat, but bites from bats are very tiny and many people, especially children, have no idea they’ve been bitten.  This is the scariest mode of transmission, in my opinion, since a bite from a bat can go undetected.  ANY contact AT ALL with a bat, whether bitten or not, should be reported to your family physician.


4.     Rabies testing

In humans there are a series of tests performed to suggest rabies as a diagnosis.  In animals, the only way to test for rabies is microscopic examination of brain tissue.  In other words, we cannot test a live animal for rabies.   

I know the topic of vaccination (in both humans and animals) is controversial.  But this disease is extremely serious and deadly.  The only way to ensure your pet is protected is to vaccinate them.  The human rabies vaccine is only given to people with a high risk of being exposed to rabies such as veterinarians and animal control officers.  If a human being has been exposed to the rabies virus, medical doctors will administer the rabies vaccine as a way to encourage the body’s immune system to fight the virus.  If a person has clinical signs of rabies, it is then too late to administer the vaccine.


I hope you enjoyed learning a little (or a lot!) more about rabies and how serious and deadly it can be. Almost every state requires pets to be vaccinated, but I encourage you to ask your family veterinarian about rabies and the best way to protect your pet!

Leigh Hofmeister, DVM, Blog Signature – Leigh Hofmeister, DVM

Leigh Hofmeister