Rabies is a disease of particular concern because it is almost always fatal. There is also a public health concern with rabies because people as well as pets, including both dogs and cats, can become infected.
Rabies is caused by a virus. Many types of mammals, including humans, dogs and cats, are susceptible to the rabies virus. It is spread through contact with the saliva of infected animals with bite wounds being the most common means of transmission.
How Do Dogs and Cats Get Rabies?
Both dogs and cats can get rabies by being exposed to the saliva of other infected animals. Most commonly, infection occurs through exposure to wildlife but exposure to other dogs or cats that are infected can spread the disease as well. Wildlife of particular concern include the bat, skunk, raccoon and fox.
Rabies is almost fatal once an animal is infected. The length of time required for clinical signs to appear varies considerably and can be as long as one year.
Symptoms of rabies present themselves in three phases.
- The prodromol phase is first and a change in personality may be seen as well as a change in the animal’s voice.
- Second comes the excitative stage. This is the classic “mad dog” stage that many people think of when rabies is discussed. The animal becomes aggressive and may suffer from hallucinations.
- The third stage is the paralytic stage. This is also known as dumb rabies. Paralysis ensues and the typical “foaming at the mouth” is seen as the muscles in the larynx (throat) become paralyzed and the animal is unable to swallow.
There is no effective treatment for rabies and death is almost always the end result.
Can Pets Be Protected from Rabies?
Pets can be protected from rabies easily and effectively via vaccination. Most communities require vaccination of pet dogs. Some also require vaccination of pet cats. Even in communities which do not require vaccination for cats, vaccination should be considered to protect your cat from this deadly disease.
Rabies vaccines are generally administered as a puppy or kitten, usually at three months of age or older for puppies and two months of age or older for kittens. The vaccine should be boostered one year later. Subsequently, vaccines should be administered following label directions. Some need to be given every three years. Others are given once yearly.
- For dogs, rabies revaccination is generally recommended every three years unless local laws require more frequent vaccination.
- For cats, because specific types of tumors (vaccine-associated sarcomas) have been linked to commonly used killed virus vaccines, many veterinarians recommend the use of a recombinant vaccine (a vaccine that contains viral DNA) that some believe to be safer in cats. However, this vaccine requires annual revaccination rather than triennial vaccination.
How Do People Get Rabies?
People can and do get rabies. In some third world countries, rabies is a fairly common occurrence. Fortunately, in the United States, it is a fairly rare occurrence because most communities require vaccination of pet dogs. However, rabies does still occur occasionally, and potential exposures to rabies are taken quite seriously by public health officials.
People get rabies in the same way that dogs and cats do, usually through a bite wound from an infected animal. However, aerosolization of rabies has been documented in enclosed areas (such as caves) which are frequented by large numbers of bats and people can, on rare occasions, be infected with rabies by exposure to these particles.