There is currently an outbreak of rabies in South Africa, and it appears to be escalating. However, it doesn’t mean you need to panic: You can protect your animals, and yourself, through proper vaccinations.

The rabies vaccine, administered correctly, will protect your cats and dogs from contracting this deadly virus. Thorough vaccination of animals is critical to containing and preventing rabies outbreaks and the resultant exposure to people.

Rabies in pets: How it’s acquired and how long it takes to manifest

Rabies is caused by a virus that is transmitted from animal to animal via saliva, most often though a bite. The virus enters the body and replicates within the nervous system, moving up into the spinal cord and the brain. When it reaches these areas, the animal will start to show clinical signs of the disease.

The incubation period (the time from when the animal is infected with the virus until it starts showing clinical signs) can be anything from one week to one year, but typically the symptoms manifest within one to three months.

Wild animals and the risk of rabies

Should you keep your pets (and yourself) away from wild animals? Most definitely! Apart from the multitude of other risks, wild animals can carry and be affected by the rabies virus

You should absolutely not touch ‘unusually tame’ wild animals. In fact, a rabid wild animal will often appear tame and be easy to approach, touch or capture, significantly increasing the chances of a bite to you or your pets. If such an animal comes into your home or garden, contact a vet, state vet or the SPCA right away for help in removing it from your premises.

Clinical signs of rabies in your pet

There are two forms of rabies in pets

  1. Furious/aggressive rabies (most common in dogs)
  2. Dumb/paralytic rabies

Symptoms of furious/aggressive rabies in your pet:

  • Acting ‘ strangely’
  • Salivating/foaming at the mouth
  • Biting, attacking or displaying aggression
  • Constantly licking or chewing at himself or objects
  • Being scared of water, light or sounds
  • Staggering or showing poor coordination
  • Weakness
  • Seizures
  • Death

Symptoms of paralytic rabies in your pet:

  • May seem more subdued than usual
  • May be more friendly than usual
  • May experience a sudden change in demeanor and attack without warning, especially when touched. This is often seen in cats and wild animals
  • Weakness
  • Poor coordination
  • Paralysis
  • Coma
  • Seizure
  • Death

Over and above these symptoms, rabies can present nearly any type of clinical signs, which can be confusing to pet owners. However, any unusual behavior in an unvaccinated or poorly vaccinated animal should be treated with caution.

How to prevent rabies in your pet

Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination! An adequate vaccination protocol is almost 100% effective in preventing this disease.

Rabies vaccinations are required by law for all domestic dogs and cats. They must receive one vaccine from 12 weeks of age, and a booster within one to nine months of this. Thereafter, an annual booster is recommended, but by legislation, all dogs and cats must be vaccinated every three years.

If an unvaccinated animal contracts rabies, the disease will be fatal. A rabies-infected pet also poses a serious risk to any other animals, as well as any humans, that come into contact with it.

What happens if I come into contact with or am bitten by a suspected rabid animal?

You should immediately wash the wound with soap and water and seek urgent medical attention.

Immediate medical treatment can be life saving. Your doctor is likely to clean the wound, implement post-rabies exposure vaccination protocol, and depending on your particular case, may give you rabies immunoglobulins.

Diagnosis of rabies in pets

Unfortunately a definitive diagnosis of rabies cannot be made in a live animal. The disease may be suspected based on clinical signs and medical/vaccination history.

If it’s suspected that the animal is suffering from rabies, a state vet will be contacted and s/he may decide that the animal should be euthanised. Since rabies is a public health risk, suspected rabid animals are always euthanised. During a post-mortem examination, a sample will be taken from the brain and a diagnosis of rabies can then be made.

Treatment of rabies

Once symptoms of rabies have begun to manifest, there is no treatment and the disease is fatal. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As a pet owner, you can easily protect your animal from this disease through proper vaccination, which is the most effective way to prevent rabies infection. Prevention is always better than cure.

So, be vigilant about vaccinations! You can also help keep your beloved furbaby in the best possible condition by reading more of our articles on pet health and well-being, written by a vet. Happy vaxxing!

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