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Virology 101: Rabies in Pets

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While rabies in pets may seem like a problem of the past, it is a very real (and very scary) disease that remains a valid concern for all. Rabies does still exist in the United States, although we have done a good job of keeping it out of the pet population through effective vaccination protocols.

It is important for all pet owners to be educated about rabies in pets, so that they can understand the risks and take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families, two- and four-legged alike.

Understanding the Virus

Understanding a disease is key to knowing how to protect ourselves and our pets. Rabies is a viral disease and can affect any mammal, including humans.

The rabies virus enters the body through a break in the skin contaminated with infected fluids, such as saliva, usually in the form of a bite. Once in the body, it stays dormant in the muscle tissue before invading nerves in the area. From there, it continues to spread through the nervous system, eventually making its way to the brain. This process may take several months.

When the rabies virus enters the brain, symptoms become apparent. Once these occur, the disease is almost always fatal. Rabies symptoms emerge in three phases:

Prodromal stage – Changes in personality and irritation at the initial exposure site are common.

Excitative stage – Hallucinations, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, and aggression are seen. This is the stage that most people associate with rabies.  

Paralytic stage – This is the final stage of the disease, leading to death. This “dumb” phase is characterized by weakness, the inability to swallow, and eventual paralysis which stops the breathing muscles.

Rabies in Pets

We often think of rabies as a disease of raccoons, skunks, and bats, but the truth is that household pets are also at risk of being infected. Dogs, cats, horses, and cows have all been infected in modern times, and the disease is present in every state (with the exception of Hawaii). It affects several hundred pets every year.

Rabies is what we refer to as a zoonotic disease. This means that humans can also be infected by animals. This makes it even more vital to understand the disease and how to keep ourselves safe.

Staying Safe

Because rabies is such a real and serious threat, it is our responsibility as pet owners to be sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our families.

The most important thing that we can do is to be sure that our animals, no matter how little time they spend outdoors, are vaccinated against rabies. The state of Texas requires all dogs and cats to be vaccinated by four months of age. It is important to keep your pet up-to-date for the vaccine to be effective. This simple action can help keep your family safe, should your pet ever be exposed to this devastating disease.

Other steps you can take to limit your pet’s exposure to rabies include:

  • Discouraging your pet from interacting with wildlife
  • Avoiding handling wildlife yourself
  • Immediately reporting wildlife that appears to be sick or acting strangely to animal control
  • Seeking veterinary attention right away should your pet come into contact with wildlife
  • Avoiding attracting wildlife by feeding pets indoors
  • Reporting stray animals that may not be vaccinated against rabies

Rabies in pets and people is a serious and devastating disease that is often deadly. This makes it so important to not take any chances. Please keep your pet’s vaccinations current and make an appointment right away if you think a potential exposure has occurred.

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Westlake Animal Hospital

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3930 Bee Cave Rd. Austin, TX 78746

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