Rabies: How It Spreads, The Signs & Why Vaccination Is Vital

Rabies: Transmission, Signs and Vaccination Protocol


Rabies is a zoonotic viral disease, meaning a disease that normally exists in wild and domestic animals that can infect humans. It attacks the central nervous system ultimately causing disease in the brain and once symptoms develop, it’s almost always fatal.


Both domestic and wild rabid animals can transmit rabies to healthy animals and humans when their saliva comes into contact with broken skin or mucous membranes. A bite wound is usually the source of transmission, but a scratch or an existing open wound can also allow the spread of the virus.

Animals are typically the transmitters. In the United States a large number of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, although any mammal, especially dogs can get rabies.


Not all animals with rabies will have unusual behavior and may not show any signs of having the disease. Some may act strangely, while others may be aggressive and try to bite or they may drool more than normal. Other animals may act timid or shy, and a wild animal might move slowly or act tame. This is a clue that something could be wrong.

Be cautious and leave wild animals alone. Never feed or approach a wild animal or stray dog or cat. If any animal is acting strangely, call your local animal control officer for help.

Signs that an animal is rabid include:

  • An animal that bites at everything
  • An animal that drools a lot
  • An animal that appears tame
  • An animal that’s moving slowly or very still
  • A bat that is on the ground


Most pets get rabies from having contact with wildlife. Dogs can spread this disease from one dog to another within the dog population as well as to humans. Dogs are responsible for a large number of rabies cases in humans because of their close proximity and relationship to humans.

There is no cure for infected animals and rabies is usually fatal. When clinical signs occur, an infected animal will often die within five days. The cases in the United States of rabies in domestic pets average 400 to 500 per year.


Rabies in humans is mostly preventable with prompt and appropriate medical care. If bitten or scratched, immediately consult a healthcare professional about treatment known as rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). If rabies is left untreated, the disease may progress from mild symptoms to coma and eventual death.

Infected bats are responsible for a large number of human rabies deaths in the United States. Since bat scratches or bites are small and often unnoticeable, they spread rabies and without immediate PEP there is eventual death.


Hyperactivity or Paralysis → Coma → Death


There are two types of rabies and a combination of symptoms may be experienced:

  • Furious Rabies: Hyperactive Symptoms
  • Paralytic Rabies: Weakness and Loss of Coordination

Symptoms in animals may include:

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Agitation
  • Dropped jaw
  • Fear of water
  • Aggressiveness
  • Lethargy/weakness
  • Hiding in dark places
  • Eating unusual things
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Hypersensitivity to stimuli
  • Difficulty or inability to swallow
  • Disorientation or lack of coordination
  • Progressive paralysis
  • Sudden death

Symptoms in humans may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Dilated pupils
  • Fever with pain
  • Seizures, hallucinations and fear of water
  • Unusual sensitivity to sound, light and changes in temperature
  • Unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking or burning sensation at the wound site


Vaccination is vital because this deadly disease is 100% preventable.

By preventing rabies in pets, you help them live longer, happier lives and you help keep loved ones and others in your community safe. To protect your pets from rabies, ensure your pets get regular rabies vaccines. Take your pets to the veterinarian on a regular basis and keep rabies vaccinations up-to-date for all cats, ferrets, and dogs. 

Since dogs are the main source of human rabies death, rabies vaccination of dogs is the only companion animal vaccine required by law in most (but not all) states.


Besides vaccinations, preventative measures include:

  • Not allowing your pets to roam or explore outdoors unsupervised.
  • Spaying or neutering your pets – this will reduce the number of pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated and be vulnerable to rabies.
  • Contacting animal control, if there are stray animals in your neighborhood. These animals could be unvaccinated and perhaps carriers of the rabies virus.

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