Rabies in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on September 05, 2023
5 min read

Rabies is an incurable virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord. All mammals, including dogs and humans, can catch rabies. 

While it’s preventable and even treatable, it must be caught early on. Once the symptoms of rabies appear, the virus is fatal. Unfortunately, there is only one way to "test" for rabies in animals and that test requires the death of the animal so its brain can be tested. THis is why keeping your pet vaccinated against rabies is so critical. 

Rabies is secreted in saliva, so it’s most often passed through a bite wound from an infected animal. When a bite breaks the skin, the virus can enter the bloodstream. It can also pass through an open wound that is exposed to the saliva of an infected animal, usually by licking. 

While it can pass between pets, rabies in dogs most frequently comes from exposure to wild animals like bats, raccoons, and foxes.

Each year, about 400 to 500 cases of rabies are reported in domestic pets like cats, dogs, and ferrets. Rabies isn’t particularly common in dogs in the United States, because it is 100% preventable with vaccination.

If your dog is bitten by another animal and you’re worried about rabies, pay close attention to their behavior and call your vet immediately if you have reason to suspect rabies. 

Your dog may quickly become restless and irritable, even showing aggression. Rabid animals may also be uncharacteristically affectionate. Similarly, if your dog is usually excited and happy, they may suddenly seem relaxed and disinterested. Physical signs of rabies in dogs to watch for include fever, difficulty swallowing, excessive drooling, staggering, seizures, and even paralysis.

As the virus progresses, your dog may act as though they are overstimulated, meaning lights, movement, and sound may appear to have a negative effect. They may seek out a dark, quiet place to hide or act aggressively. 

One of the most well known symptoms of rabies in dogs is foaming at the mouth. Some dogs may not show “foaming” but simply excess saliva or drooling. This is a sign that the virus has progressed. In the final stages of rabies, seizures and increasing paralysis are common. Dogs in this stage can’t control their muscles — especially in their head and throat — which makes swallowing difficult. Eventually breathing isn’t possible, which leads to death.

The virus can be in your dog’s body for weeks before signs develop. Most cases in dogs develop within 21 to 80 days after exposure, but the incubation period can be much shorter or longer. Once rabies shows symptoms, it can’t be treated, so it’s important to call your vet as soon as your dog has been bitten, instead of waiting to see.

Rabies is not easily diagnosed by a blood test. To be 100% accurate, testing requires a biopsy of brain tissue, so it can’t be completed until the animal has died.

Once symptoms appear, there’s no way to treat rabies in dogs. Unfortunately, if your veterinarian suspects rabies, your dog may be euthanized since they could spread the virus. 

If a wild animal bites your dog, a booster of the rabies vaccination may be given to lessen the chance that your dog will contract the virus.

The best way to prevent rabies is to vaccinate your pet on schedule. In fact, having a rabies vaccination is the law for pets in many states. 

The vaccine helps your dog in more ways than one. Vaccination does just project your dog from rabies, but it also protects your dog if they bite someone. If your dog bites another animal or human, the first question asked will be if your dog’s up-to-date with their vaccines. 

By proving that your dog has had the rabies vaccine, you can be sure that there’s no threat of rabies transmission. However, if your dog’s vaccinations aren’t up-to-date, they may be quarantined or even euthanized because of the possible threat. Dogs who have bitten people have to be confined for at least 10 days to see if rabies develops. 

You can also prevent rabies by avoiding contact with wild animals. Walk your dog on a leash, and always be aware of your surroundings.  Animals that roam free are more likely to come into contact with wild animals and catch the virus. 

If you see a wild animal acting strangely and you suspect rabies, call your local health department or animal control. Don’t try to capture the animal yourself. Instead, keep your distance, warn others nearby, and alert the authorities. 

Call your veterinarian immediately for an examination of the wound and treatment. Your vet can provide a booster to your dog's rabies vaccination and clean the wound to prevent infection. 

You or your vet should also call your local health department and file a report. This way, the animal in question can be located and removed from the area, so no other animals are harmed. 

Keep in mind that you could catch rabies from the wound if your dog was bitten, so don’t touch or clean the wound without wearing disposable gloves.

Call your doctor immediately and wash the bite thoroughly with soap and water, and use a disinfectant such as iodine or ethanol if you have one. If you can safely capture the animal that has bitten you, you can try to confine it, but only if you can do so without being bitten again. If you can’t catch it safely, remember what it looked like and where you saw it, so you can file a report with authorities.

If necessary, your physician will give you the post-exposure treatment recommended by the United States Public Health Service, a costly and painful therapy, to prevent the rabies virus from spreading through your body. Your doctor may also treat you for other possible infections that could result from the bite. Quick action is the key to protecting yourself from rabies.