Rabies is a serious viral illness that can affect any warm blooded animal, including humans1. Infection is usually by a bite from an infected animal. The virus causes inflammation of the brain (acute encephalitis). There is no treatment for animals and once clinical signs occur the outcome is fatal.
More than 27,000 cases of rabies in animals are reported every year from around the world1 and an estimated 55,000 people are thought to die every year from the disease, with as many as 24,000 in Africa alone2.
Rabies is a notifiable disease in the UK3.
Fortunately, rabies is not present in wildlife in the UK, although a strain of the virus called European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV 2) has been found in some bats in the UK3. If you find a bat, dead or alive, the advice is not to touch it. If it appears sick, in difficulty or dead, then call the Bat Conservation Trust on 0845 1300 228 or http://www.bats.org.uk/
The clinical signs can be quite variable and mainly result from inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) caused by the rabies virus. Although rabies can be quite variable in its presentation, there are typically 3 recognisable stages. Not all animals progress through all the stages.
1st: Prodromal stage usually lasts 1-3 days, in which time the animal may:
have a fever
lick or chew at the site of a bite
have dilated pupils
show changes in behaviour
hide or seek solitude
2nd: Furious stage usually lasts 1-7 days, in which time the animal may:
over-react to audible or visual stimuli
be excitable and restless
snap at imaginary things
have a lack of coordination
show signs of aggression and attempt to bite anything placed close to its mouth
3rd :Paralytic stage usually lasts 2-4 days. This stage may occur between 1 and 10 days after the initial signs. It can happen without the ‘furious’ stage or afterwards (more common in cats). The animal may:
be unable to swallow, so will ‘drool’
have a change in voice
have a ‘dropped’ jaw (less common in cats)
have deep and laboured respiration
Paralysis and death due to respiratory failure usually occurs in 2 to 4 days
Rabies virus is a type of Lyssavirus. The virus is present in high concentrations in the saliva of affected animals. This allows transmission by biting which is the main method of transmitting the disease. The virus enters the animal via this bite wound and may replicate in the muscle before travelling up the nerves to the spine and brain. In the brain the virus causes inflammation (encephalitis). The incubation period is quite variable (average 3-6 weeks1). Any warm blooded animal can be affected, although the susceptibility varies considerably between species1.
A diagnosis is usually made based on clinical signs. Any animal with sudden onset and rapidly worsening neurological disease should be suspected. Diagnosis can only be confirmed on post-mortem with laboratory tests to look for rabies virus in the brain
There is no treatment in animals. Only control measures such as vaccination of wild and domestic animals allows effective prevention of this disease. Any animal suspected of being infected is euthanased under strict quarantine conditions to minimise the risk of further spread. Post-mortem tissue samples are then examined to confirm the diagnosis.
Vaccination is very effective at preventing infection. Vaccines are available for dogs and cats in the UK who are being exported, or are travelling abroad under the ‘Pet Travel Scheme (‘PETS’)’.
If you are considering taking your pet abroad, you should discuss this with your veterinary surgeon well in advance of your planned travel More information on ‘PETS’ can be found at https://www.gov.uk/take-pet-abroad/pet-passport
Strategies to control Rabies vary between countries
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Can my pet get rabies from the vaccine?
Answer: No. The rabies vaccines available in the UK contain killed virus and so cannot infect the recipient.
1. Greene C.E and C E Rupprecht, ‘Rabies and other Lyssavirus Infections’ in C E Greene (ed), Infectious Disease of the Dog and Cat 3rd Edition, Saunders Elsevier, 2006, pp.167-183
2 World Health Organisation, ‘Rabies Fact Sheet No. 99’, WHO, Sept. 2010, Retrieved June 2011, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs099/en/
3. DEFRA, ‘Disease Factsheet: Rabies’, DEFRA, Jan 2011, Retrieved June 2011, http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/rabies/index.htm