French BulldogMost people know that wild animals can carry rabies, but many of us don’t think it’s something that can affect our pets or us. Unfortunately, the reality of rabies is closer to home than many of us realize. The disease is present in every state (except Hawaii) and kills hundreds of pets, as well as a few humans, each year.

Understanding the link between rabies and pets is key in protecting your family, both two-legged and four, from this devastating illness.

What You Need to Know About Rabies

Rabies is a polioencephalitis virus that affects the central nervous system and brain.  It specifically affects mammals and is transmitted through a bite or scratch from an infected animal. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means it is transmissible from animals to people. In Colorado, skunks and bats are its main carriers.

Once an animal is infected with rabies, it can take up to a month for symptoms to appear. However, once they do, the disease progresses rapidly. Rabies initially resides in the muscle tissue and then migrates to the local nerves. After spreading through the nervous system, it ends up in the brain.  The time from initial exposure and incubation, to the symptomatic stages and death is generally 3 to 8 weeks for dogs and 2 to 6 weeks for cats.  

Rabies is extremely dangerous and almost 100% fatal. There is no treatment or cure.

What to Watch Out For

An infected animal will generally not show any symptoms until rabies has reached the brain, at which point the disease has reached its late stage and death is imminent.

The symptoms of rabies appear in three distinct stages, which are as follows:

  • Early (prodromal) stage – This stage lasts 1-3 days and is characterized by mild behavioral changes, including, weakness, changes in vocal tone, mild irritability or unusual shyness.
  • Excitative stage – This stage lasts for 1-7 days, and is characterized by hyperactivity, aggressiveness, and the animal may bite at anything that comes near it. The animal may also hallucinate or experience sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Paralytic stage – This final stage usually manifests over a period of 2-4 days. and is caused by damage to the motor neurons of the brain. It is characterized by extreme behavior changes, such as vicious attack behavior, excessive fright, loss of coordination, drooling, difficulty swallowing, and paralysis. When the breathing muscles become paralyzed, respiratory failure and death will occur.

When people think of rabies in pets, dogs are what typically comes to mind. It’s important to note, however, that cats can and do contract rabies. In 2015, a kitten in Colorado was diagnosed with rabies, causing 20 people to seek treatment.

Keeping Your Pets and Family Safe

You can minimize the risk of contracting rabies for your family and pets in the following ways:

  • Keeping your pets up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations is the single best way to prevent them from contracting the disease. Colorado law states that all pets must be vaccinated for rabies.
  • Feed your pet indoors and do not leave your pet’s food or water outdoors where it can attract wildlife.
  • Stay away from any animal that is acting aggressively or behaving in an odd manner.
  • Avoid contact with wildlife, alive or dead. Keep pets and children from approaching wildlife and don’t try to touch, feed or care for wild animals.
  • Animal-proof your yard with fencing, eliminate areas where an animal could hide or nest, and keep trash bins securely closed.
  • If you observe a nocturnal animal during the day, such as a raccoon, skunk, bat or fox, rabies may be the cause. Stay away and report any unusual activity to your local Animal Control.
  • Keep dogs leashed while out on walks and on the trail, and keep cats indoors.
  • Report all stray animals to your local Animal Control.
  • If you, a child or pet are scratched or bitten by any animal, wild or domestic, seek medical care immediately.

If you have any questions or concerns about rabies and pets, please contact the staff at Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center.