When you think of rabies, you probably picture an angry, growling dog foaming at the mouth and aggressively advancing on all who come near him. While the drool, the frothing mouth, and the angry disposition are an accurate representation of a typical case of rabies, there’s more that you should know.
Rabies is something you DON’T want your pet to end up with. It can affect all mammals. Always fatal, rabies is a viral infection that affects your pet’s brain and central nervous system (CNS). Primarily spread through the bite of infected animals such as foxes, raccoons, bats, and skunks, rabies is a zoonotic infection that can affect all mammals, meaning it can be transmitted to humans.
Rabies can cause several symptoms, but there are some telltale signs. Early stages may merely cause mild abnormalities with the central nervous system, such as weakness and loss of coordination. This can last up to three days before progressing rather rapidly to the severe symptoms many are familiar with, ranging from paralysis to extreme behavior swings.
Here’s a list of signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Change in tone of bark
- Lack of coordination
- Change in behavior/irritable/unusually shy or aggressive
- Excessive salivation
- Inability to swallow
If you think your pet may have been bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, it’s crucial to contact your veterinarian immediately! Your pet must be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease, and the amount of quarantine time depends on several factors, including state and local regulations, whether or not your pet was vaccinated against rabies, and/or whether or not the animal your pet encountered is a confirmed rabies case.
Since there are other diseases that can cause behaviorchanges similar to those caused by rabies, your veterinarian may want to run tests to rule out other issues. These tests may include:
- Chemistry tests to evaluate kidney, liver, and pancreatic function, as well as sugar levels
- Electrolyte tests to ensure your dog isn’t dehydrated or suffering from an electrolyte imbalance
- A complete blood count (CBC) to screen your pet for infection, inflammation, or anemia and other blood-related conditions
- Urine tests to screen for urinary tract infection and other diseases, and to evaluate the ability of the kidneys to concentrate urine
- Screening tests to rule out certain infectious diseases
It is important to keep in mind that there are no blood tests that can be performed by a veterinarian to test for rabies. Testing must be done post-mortem (after death) to verify a rabies case, and this testing is performed in a state-authorized laboratory. Any confirmed cases of rabies should be reported to your state health department.
Sadly, there’s no treatment for rabies. It is always fatal in an unvaccinated animal, which is why it is very important for pets to stay current on their rabies vaccinations through regular booster shots. Rabies protocols vary from state to state; some states require pets to have rabies shots each year while others do not. To learn more about your state’s laws concerning rabies, talk with your veterinarian or contact state officials in your home state.
Always follow the recommendations of your veterinarian, and when you have your pet vaccinated, keep your vaccination record handy for proof of vaccination. If your pet were to be bitten by another animal, or if your pet bites another animal, this can save your pet’s life.
If your pet comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal, be careful! Because you and others are in danger, it’s important to avoid contact with your pet’s saliva. Immediately disinfect any areas your pet may have come in contact with using a bleach solution. If you have been bitten or scratched yourself, contact your physician immediately.
To learn more about rabies, visit the Center for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/pets/index.html.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
Beverly Hills Veterinary Associates’ Blog
Most everyone has heard of rabies, and while people generally understand that it’s dangerous, not everyone is aware of what rabies is, how it is transmitted, and what the risk is to people and pets.
Although rabies is largely controlled in the United States, it still remains a concern. Each year, hundreds of dogs and cats die of rabies in the U.S., as well as a few humans. Understanding rabies and learning how to protect your pets and your family are critical steps in the fight against this deadly disease.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease that affects mammals, including dogs, cats, and humans. The disease is considered zoonotic due to its ability to transfer between animals and humans. Rabies is generally spread by direct contact with an infected animal, usually through a bite. Wildlife, such as bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, commonly carry rabies.
Stages and Symptoms
After exposure, the rabies virus will slowly migrate from the infection site to the brain via the central nervous system. This may take up to a month or more. Once the virus has entered the brain, the disease becomes impossible to treat.
Once rabies has reached the brain, it manifests in three distinct stages:
Prodromal stage – This early stage, just after the virus has entered the brain, is characterized by changes in personality and vocalization.
Excitative stage – The animal may hallucinate, become aggressive, or exhibit other major personality disruptions.
Paralytic stage – Once the excitative period has passed, the infected animal will become weak and lose the ability to swallow, which may lead to the characteristic “foaming at the mouth” that we often associate with rabies. Death follows shortly after the onset of this last stage, due to paralysis of the breathing muscles.
Keeping Your Family and Pets Safe
The number one way you can help prevent the spread of rabies is to have your pets vaccinated and keep their rabies vaccine current. The state of Michigan requires all dogs over the age of 4 months to be vaccinated against rabies, but we highly recommend vaccinating cats and kittens as well, including those who live exclusively indoors, since wildlife can sometimes find their way inside our homes.
Other ways to minimize the risk of rabies exposure include:
- Avoid animals that are acting aggressively or unnaturally. Be on the alert for nocturnal animals (such as skunks, bats, or opossums) out during the day, as this could indicate that the animal is rabid. Contact animal control immediately if you observe any abnormal behavior in wildlife.
- Keep dogs on a leash when out for a walk, and keep cats indoors. Don’t allow pets to investigate wildlife, dead or alive.
- Do not touch or attempt to touch or care for wild mammals that appear ill. Contact animal control .
- If you, a family member, or a pet has been bitten or scratched by a wild or domestic animal, seek medical care immediately.
- Make your home and property inhospitable to wildlife by adding fencing, clearing branches and debris where wildlife could hide or nest, and keeping trash bins securely covered.
If you have any questions or concerns about rabies and pets, contact the staff at Beverly Hills Veterinary Associates .
Rabies 101 FREE Training Rabies 101: Does Your Pet NEED a Rabies Vaccine?
FREE! Some things to learn about Rabies! Its today and Tomorrow!
I'm just finishing the script for this free training Rabies 101: Does Your Pet NEED a Rabies Vaccine? and I just added this:
A slide on a key player to help you through the ins and outs of rabies! I call him/her a "sympathetic vet." And I give you an opening question to use when you interview this person to be sure they'd be a good fit for you.
What you discover in this training will give you a "rethink" on what your animals actually need from your vet vs what's often getting sold to you. And why "compliance" with someone else's agenda is far from the safest path for your beloved animals.
When you understand it, and see the big red flags I share with you, you can make different decisions on behalf of your animals, decisions that ensure her a healthier, more joyful life for more years with you.
I didn't want you to let this slip away. It's gonna be good!
Here's the link to register for free and join us.
[News] Rabies Challenge Fund Results
Pet owners have been anxiously awaiting good news from The Rabies Challenge Fund Charitable Trust (RCF) since its founding in 2009.
And now the study has been peer-reviewed and published. At DNM we got our hands on a copy, and I’m going to tell you what it says.
First I want to give you a bit of background, in case you don’t know the history of the RCF.
How the Rabies Challenge Fund Got Started
In 2003 Kris Christine’s dog Meadow received a rabies booster. This was a 2-year booster required (at the time) by the state of Maine. There is no 2-year rabies vaccine licensed, so he got a 3-year vaccine.
Meadow developed a malignant mast cell tumor at his rabies vaccination site … and it metastasized. This tragic reaction made Kris decide to do something about the over-strict rabies vaccination laws … knowing so many dogs suffering serious damage from over-vaccination.
The first thing Kris did was to get Maine’s rabies law changed … so that cats and dogs can be vaccinated with any licensed vaccine. She also obtained a medical exemption clause.
And then she formed the Rabies Challenge Fund.
Veterinarian W Jean Dodds DVM came in as Co-Trustee. Veterinary immunology expert Ronald P Schultz DVM PhD joined as Principal Investigator to lead the studies. Dr Laurie Larson got involved upon Dr Schultz’s retirement. Both Dr Schultz and Dr Larson were from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.
They set an important goal for the RCF studies.
That goal was to extend state-mandated rabies vaccine frequency from the current 3 years, to 5 years, and then 7 years.
Rabies Duration Of Immunity
Dr Schultz spent decades researching vaccine immunity at University of Wisconsin. His work showed that duration of immunity (DOI) for core vaccines was at least 7 years. And in many cases, protection lasted for the life of the pet.
Dr Schultz’s serological* studies of rabies vaccines showed that vaccinated animals were protected for 7 years.
In 1992, French researcher Michel Aubert demonstrated that dogs were immune to a rabies challenge** 5 years after vaccination.
*Serology means protection measured by an antibody titer.
**Challenge means exposure to the real rabies virus.
When RCF began, Dr Jean Dodds said:
“From challenge trials, we know the DOI for regular vaccines is seven to nine years, if not longer. So why would the rabies vaccines, being so potent, not have an even longer DOI? We decided the thing to do would be to design a study to federal government standards that would determine if the DOI is longer than three years.”
Reduce Adverse Effects of the Rabies Vaccine
Rabies vaccines cause a multitude of adverse effects. These range from immediate reactions to long term, chronic illness … and even death.
Documented reactions include:
- Behavior changes (aggression, separation anxiety)
- Obsessive behavior, self-mutilation, tail chewing
- Pica – eating wood, stones, earth, stool
- Destructive behavior, shredding bedding
- Seizures, epilepsy
- Fibrosarcomas at injection site
- Autoimmune diseases of bone marrow and blood cells, joints, eyes, skin, kidney, liver, bowel or central nervous system
- Muscular weakness and or atrophy
- Chronic digestive problems
RCF designed live rabies virus challenge studies to measure the long-term duration of immunity. They expected to show that duration of immunity of rabies vaccines is much longer than 3 years.
Successful challenge studies (done according to USDA licensing code Title 9), could help convince State governments to allow longer intervals between rabies shots. RCF hoped to prove first 5 years immunity, and then 7 years.
RCF also believed their studies might prompt vaccine manufacturers to come up with rabies vaccines licensed for 5 and 7 years.
Before the studies could start, RCF had to raise money. University of Wisconsin agreed to cover nearly half of the overhead for the study. But RCF still needed $177,000 for just the first year, and $150,000 each year after that.
RCF was a true grassroots supported organization. Funding for the study came from many different sources … perhaps even from you!
Everyone wanted the research to help change outdated and sometimes draconian rabies laws.
Many individual pet owners generously gave what they could afford to help fund the studies. Breed clubs, rescue groups, trainers, breeders, and kennel owners also donated to RCF.
The team ran into some unlucky obstacles along the way.
First, finding a challenge facility to do the studies wasn’t easy. Typically, only vaccine manufacturers have large scale challenge facilities that are USDA approved. Dr Schultz found a facility for the challenges. But then the company was sold and RCF was left without a lab to do the challenges.
Eventually they found a replacement facility. Dr Zhen Fang Fu of the Department of Pathology at the University of Georgia (UG) vet school agreed to run the challenge studies. But the lab could only accommodate 15 dogs at a time.
So it took longer than planned to do the trials.
Then … the USDA wouldn’t send the virus to any lab under biosafety level 3. UG’s lab was level 2. Luckily they were really keen to do the trials, so they upgraded the lab.
But it caused another delay.
The third and biggest problem was that the live rabies virus used for the first challenge trial had lost its virulence. Only the USDA can supply the virus, so the researchers had to get a different virus for the remaining challenges.
You’ll read in the description of Challenge Trial 1 how this major problem impacted the success of the studies.
The study protocol followed the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Title 9 CFR standards for licensing rabies vaccines.
RCF ran two concurrent studies, for 5 and 7 years.
They started with 100 female Beagle puppies. Ultimately there were 65 Beagles in the studies. 35 dogs were spayed and adopted out at the end of the studies.
There were 3 challenge groups.
- At 12 and 15 weeks old, 3 groups of dogs got either a commercial rabies vaccine, or saline.
- Challenge groups 1 and 2 had 15 dogs. Each group had 10 vaccinated dogs and 5 non-vaccinated control dogs.
- Group 3 had 12 vaccinated dogs and 3 non-vaccinated control dogs.
- Continuum Rabies (“Vaccine A”), by Intervet (Merck)
- IMRAB- TF (“Vaccine B”), a thimerosal-free vaccine by Merck.
The Rabies Challenge Trials
Before we talk about the results, here’s how the researchers did the challenge trials.
“Challenge” means they injected live rabies virus into the dogs, under anesthesia.
Then, every 8 hours for 28 days, they observed the dogs for signs of rabies, including:
- Hyper excitability
- Behavior changes
- Dilated pupils
- Photophobia (light sensitivity)
- Reduced appetite
- Inability to drink
After the initial 28-day observation period, the researchers monitored survivors daily for the rest of the 90-day period.
The goal was to meet the USDA Code Of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 9 … which require an 88% or higher survival rate.
Challenge Trial # 1
The first challenge included 15 dogs:
- 5 unvaccinated control dogs
- 5 dogs vaccinated with Vaccine A, challenged 6 years 10 months after vaccination
- 5 dogs vaccinated with Vaccine B, challenged 5 years 5 months after vaccination
- None of the vaccinated dogs got rabies
- Only 2 of 5 unvaccinated dogs showed signs of rabies.
But of course we don’t know that for sure.
The researchers obtained a different rabies challenge virus from the USDA for the remaining challenges.
Challenge Trial # 2
Challenge 2 was also done with 15 dogs.
- 5 unvaccinated control dogs.
- 5 dogs vaccinated with Vaccine A, challenged 8 years after.
- 5 dogs vaccinated with Vaccine B, challenged 6 years 7 months after.
This meant the rabies virus was sufficiently virulent this time. (They used the same one for Trial 3.)
- Only 1 of 5 of the Vaccine A dogs showed protection against rabies (8 years after vaccination).
- 4 of 5 Vaccine B dogs showed protection against rabies, 6 years 7 months after vaccination.
- So … half of the 10 vaccinated dogs were protected. None of these 5 protected dogs developed clinical signs of rabies during the 90-day observation period.
For humane reasons the researchers reduced the number of unvaccinated dogs in this trial:
- 3 unvaccinated control dogs
- 12 dogs vaccinated with Vaccine B, challenged 7 years 1 month after vaccination.
- Again, all unvaccinated dogs showed signs of rabies 14 to 21 days after the challenge.
- 6 of 12 vaccinated dogs survived the 90-day observation period with no signs of rabies.
Final Rabies Challenge Study Results
Again, Trial 1 failed because the challenge virus wasn’t sufficiently virulent,
So … I’m just summarizing Trials 2 and 3 …
- 80% (of vaccinated dogs) showed protection after 6 years 7 months
- 50% showed protection after 7 years 1 month
- 20% (1 dog) showed protection after 8 years
- The research did demonstrate that rabies duration of immunity is greater than 3 years. (Remember, they used vaccines licensed for 3-year use.)
- The research did not achieve its goal of 88% survival rates, 5 years or 7 years after vaccination.
- The trial 2 results showing 80% of dogs were protected by Vaccine B were encouraging … but not enough to meet the USDA Title 9 standard.
It’s disappointing that the 5-year challenge (Trial 1) was unsuccessful because of the non-virulent virus. It’s highly likely they would have demonstrated immunity 5 years after vaccination otherwise.
As well as the challenge trials, the studies included some important immune response testing. So … read on for more detail!
And I’ve provided some additional thoughts in the Conclusion below.
Testing For Immune Response
As part of the challenge trials, the researchers also collected regular serum and lymph node mononuclear cell samples to test immune memory responses in the dogs. They analyzed:
- Serum samples using the RFFIT rabies titer test.
- Memory cell response by flow cytometry.
- Brain tissue for the presence of rabies virus using immunohistochemistry and reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).
This would allow vets to confirm immune response by titer so they could be confident of rabies protection when writing exemptions for unhealthy dogs.
This is especially important for seriously ill or immune-compromised dogs. Immune-compromised dogs are unlikely to mount an immune response, even if vaccinated.
- The study found that antibody responses (measured by titers) 12 days after the challenges correlated strongly with survival.
- Vaccinated dogs had significantly higher memory B-cells 4 days after challenge, compared to the unvaccinated dogs.
- All unvaccinated control dogs had virus in their brain tissues
- All vaccinated dogs who developed rabies had virus in their brain tissues.
- Vaccinated dogs who survived the 90-day post-challenge period had no rabies virus in their brain tissues.
This was disappointing … but didn’t really surprise the researchers. Dr Schultz had been taking titer data annually … so they’d seen how titers waned.
It did show that B-cell immunity lasts even after titers drop below a titer level of 0.1 IU/ml.
But the risk of rabies increases if titers fall below 0.5 IUI/ml.
So, rabies boosters may still be “the prudent, safe decision,” according to prior studies.
And unfortunately, for now, the law says those boosters have to be every 3 years.
The researchers also did a revaccination trial.
10 dogs were revaccinated with Vaccine A, 6 years 1 month after their first vaccines.
Another 10 previously unvaccinated dogs got either Vaccine A, or Vaccine C, PureVax Rabies by Merial. That’s the third vaccine I mentioned earlier.
Vaccine C is a recombinant, non-adjuvanted feline rabies vaccine.
- Recombinant means 2 viruses are spliced together.
- PureVax contains rabies recombinant canarypox virus, intended to stimulate a better immune response.)
The other thing that’s significant about Vaccine C is that it has no adjuvants. This means it’s less likely to cause adverse reactions.
There is no non-adjuvanted vaccine for dogs.
- 90% of the previously vaccinated dogs had titers over 0.5 IU/ml …
- … Compared to only 30% of the previously unvaccinated (naïve) dogs
- The recombinant, non-adjuvanted vaccine (C), had much higher responses than the killed virus vaccine in the previously vaccinated dogs.
- Vaccine C did not produce titers over 0.5 IU/ml in the naïve dogs.
In Conclusion …
The Rabies Challenge Fund has finished its work. The website states:
“We are no longer taking donations. Thank you for your support.”
The research paper concludes:
- Rabies vaccine may induce a duration of immunity well beyond 3 years in dogs
- Antibody is the most important protective factor against rabies virus
- Anamnestic responses to virulent challenge can be seen even without protective titers in previously vaccinated dogs
- Protection persists without annual or triennial re-vaccination
- Antibody testing of individual pets can be an excellent indicator of protection or lack thereof … although further studies are needed to determine a protective antibody threshold for vaccinated dogs.
The RCF believes their research serves as a foundation for further studies (possibly by vaccine manufacturers) with the goal of:
- Licensing a rabies vaccine for 5 to 6 years. This would enable States to extend the legally required booster intervals.
- Developing and licensing a recombinant, non-adjuvanted rabies booster vaccine for dogs
- Establishing a protective serum rabies titer standard for dogs.
But there are a couple of important details.
- Many of us have believed that one rabies vaccination is enough to protect a dog for many years, possibly even for life. But the RCF studies did not prove that.
- The vaccinated dogs in the RCF studies all had two rabies vaccines (at 12 and 15 weeks of age). So the researchers weren’t trying to prove a “one and done” theory.
- Rabies vaccines, which used killed virus, don’t create as long a DOI as modified live vaccines (like parvovirus or distemper) do.
So, for your own peace of mind … if you choose not to vaccinate your dog for rabies, you might want to get titers done. Then you won’t have to worry if your dog tangles with the local wildlife.
2. The studies were done to meet USDA standards for vaccine licensing,
- This means the dogs were injected directly with the rabies virus.
- That kind of challenge is quite different from your dog meeting a rabid raccoon in your backyard.
- It’s unlikely that any dog outside of a research facility would ever encounter the level of potent rabies challenge that the trial dogs did.
So the recommendations for veterinarians in the 2016 Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control were updated. Since then, the guidelines say that if a dog exposed to rabies is overdue for his rabies vaccination, he can have a booster shot, followed by an observation period at home, instead of being euthanized or quarantined.
Does Your Dog Still Need A Rabies Vaccine?
For now (if you want to obey the law) … you’ll still need to vaccinate your dog for rabies every 3 years in the US and most Canadian provinces.
Unless you can get a vet to write you an exemption.
Vaccine exemptions are allowed in 18 US states (with a 19th coming in May).
You’ll need to find a vet who’s willing to give the exemption. Many conventional vets aren’t comfortable with exemptions. So, try to find a holistic vet who’ll be more likely to support your request.
Even though most state legislation doesn’t allow rabies titers in lieu of vaccination … it’s a good idea to get a titer if you’re asking your vet for an exemption.
States With Exemptions
18 (soon to be 19) US States allow medical exemptions in lieu of rabies vaccination.
Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin.
Each state’s law is different, but in most cases, it means your vet can write an exemption for a pet who isn’t healthy enough to be vaccinated.
In January 2020, Delaware passed a new bill authorizing exemptions. Delaware is unique in that the law specifically provides for rabies titers for pets considered unhealthy. The bill should be signed into law in May 2020.
If your state doesn’t already allow exemptions … think about whether you’d like to get involved and help make changes.
Comments From the Rabies Challenge Fund (RCF)
RCF Co-Trustee and founder, Kris Christine was kind enough to share her thoughts with me on the trial results.
“We’ve collected data that has the potential to make the US a safer place for our canines. I’m really happy we were able to do what we did … despite the hurdles.
“I want to thank every single person who donated. Especially those individuals who gave whatever they could afford … even $5 a month … because they believed so strongly in our work.
“I feel this was my way of giving back to these incredible animals who bring us so much. Whatever sanity I have is because of dogs! In these difficult times with COVID, things would be so much worse without dogs They keep us grounded and somewhat sane.
“I hope this data will help ease the draconian approach to enforcing regulations. We need more reasonable regulations and protocols, based on science and not just fear!”
Julia Henriques is Managing Editor of Dogs Naturally Magazine. She's on the Board of Playing Again Sams (Wisconsin Samoyed Rescue) where she enjoys helping adopters and group members choose more natural health care options for their dogs. She lives in Chicago with her partner Marc and two rescue Samoyeds.
- Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease which occurs in more than 150 countries and territories.
- Dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans.
- Infection causes tens of thousands of deaths every year, mainly in Asia and Africa.
- Globally rabies causes an estimated cost of US$ 8.6 billion per year
- 40% of people bitten by suspect rabid animals are children under 15 years of age.
- Immediate, thorough wound washing with soap and water after contact with a suspect rabid animal is crucial and can save lives.
- Engagement of multiple sectors and One Health collaboration including community education, awareness programmes and vaccination campaigns are critical.
- WHO leads the collective “United Against Rabies” to drive progress towards "Zero human deaths from dog-mediated rabies by 2030".
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable, zoonotic, viral disease. Once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal. In up to 99% of cases, domestic dogs are responsible for rabies virus transmission to humans. Yet, rabies can affect both domestic and wild animals. It is spread to people and animals through bites or scratches, usually via saliva.
Rabies is present on all continents, except Antarctica, with over 95% of human deaths occurring in the Asia and Africa regions. Rabies is one of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) that predominantly affects poor and vulnerable populations who live in remote rural locations. Approximately 80% of human cases occur in rural areas. Although effective human vaccines and immunoglobulins exist for rabies, they are not readily available or accessible to those in need. Globally, rabies deaths are rarely reported and children between the ages of 5–14 years are frequent victims. Managing a rabies exposure, where the average cost of rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is currently estimated at an average of US$ 108 can be a catastrophic financial burden on affected families whose average daily income may be as low as US$ 1–2 per person 1
Every year, more than 29 million people worldwide receive a post-bite vaccination. This is estimated to prevent hundreds of thousands of rabies deaths annually. Globally, the economic burden of dog-mediated rabies is estimated at US$ 8.6 billion per year.