What Veterans Should Know About Rabies

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on May 07, 2022
4 min read

Rabies is a debilitating and often deadly disease that affects animals and humans. Thus, rabies can lead to serious health concerns for those who’ve had contact with the saliva, such as a bite, of an infected animal while deployed. If you are a veteran and were deployed as part of Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF), Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and New Dawn (OND), you need to know what causes rabies and how to seek treatment. Learn why it’s important to get medical help as soon as possible if you were exposed. 

Rabies is a virus that affects only mammals (warm-blooded animals). Unlike most other viral infections that occur by breathing or ingesting, the rabies virus is only spread through the saliva of infected animals.  

Rabies infection can quickly become life-threatening if you’ve been bitten by a rabid animal and their saliva makes contact with a scratch or open wound on your body. It’s nearly impossible to catch the virus if you’re simply in the same room as a rabid animal without contact.

As a veteran, you may have been at high risk of rabies exposure while serving in countries where domestic animals are not typically vaccinated for rabies. In the U.S., wild animals usually carry the virus, but in other parts of the world, stray dogs typically infect people and animals with rabies.

The initial symptoms of a rabies virus infection mimic symptoms of flu. Later, you may experience one or more symptoms, which include but are not limited to:

  • Extra saliva production
  • Psychotic episodes, such as hallucinations and delusions
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty swallowing, leading to a fear of drinking fluids
  • Insomnia
  • Partial paralysis

If you become infected with the rabies virus, you may not feel symptoms right away, as the average incubation period is around two months. By the time you start showing symptoms, rabies treatment may be very difficult or sometimes impossible to treat. 

If you made contact with a wild or unfamiliar animal while deployed, immediately seek medical treatment from a VA health care facility for the suspected rabies virus — even if you aren’t sure if that animal was infected. You can’t tell if an animal has rabies by sight alone, and the animal would have to be tested for rabies to know for sure.

There are a couple of ways to know if you are infected. If the animal you encountered tests positive, you’ll likely test positive and receive treatment. Knowing if the animal’s diagnostic lab results are negative may save you from undergoing rabies treatment.

However, testing the animal is not always applicable. If you encountered the saliva of a warm-blooded animal, such as a dog, fox, or bat bite, it’s best to assume the animal was rabid and see medical care immediately from a VA healthcare facility. Here, you’ll undergo several diagnostic tests that will look at your blood, skin, spinal fluid, and more. Don’t wait for symptoms to come up, as treatments are not effective once they appear.

While there is a rabies vaccine available, most people in the U.S. typically don’t get vaccinated unless they meet certain circumstances. 

People who are at high risk for contracting rabies. Veterinarians, animal trainers, or members of a military unit traveling to countries where rabies is common are all examples of people at high risk for pre-exposure. These people are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated and won’t need the complete series of vaccine shots post-exposure.  

Anyone else who has been recently exposed. Despite the two months of incubation post-exposure, time is of the essence after a potential rabies encounter. The first step is immediately washing the wound with soap and water. The next step is getting the series of vaccine shots as soon as possible from your VA healthcare facility or local ER. The number of shots in the series depends if you have been previously vaccinated for rabies. Remember that rabies treatments usually don’t work once symptoms begin to appear. 

You were at greater risk of rabies exposure if you served in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan during OEF, OIF, and OND. You should seek medical advice and possible treatment from your VA healthcare facility for potential rabies exposure during that time.

If you are deployed overseas again, know that the Army Public Health Center, a division of the U.S. Army Medical Department, advises following General Order 1: No animal mascots or pets when deployed. Avoiding wildlife is another way to prevent rabies, but some military operations and training areas may not make this possible. Remember that many domestic animals in some foreign countries are not vaccinated for rabies. So, before deploying, make sure you’re up-to-date on immunizations. Consult with your doctor to see if you need a pre-exposure rabies vaccine.

The United States Africa Command, a section of the U.S. Department of Defense, requires rabies vaccines for its military personnel who are at high risk of infection. They follow the CDC’s vaccine schedule for preexposure: 

  • First dose during the initial appointment
  • Second dose seven days after initial appointment
  • Third dose two to three weeks after initial appointment

Booster shots range from every six months if you are at continuous risk to as needed if you are at infrequent risk. The need for boosters is based on blood antibody level testing.

Talk to your doctor about the timing of these shots, as it’s important to receive all necessary doses before you leave the country. 

Do not skip doses, and do not assume that getting a pre-exposure shot will give you immunity for your entire life. Check with your doctor to ensure that you have received the correct vaccinations before traveling overseas. Regardless of pre-exposure vaccination, always seek immediate medical care if you encounter an animal able to carry rabies. Your life depends upon your quick action.