Rabies in Dogs
Rabies disease is caused by the rabies virus (a Lyssavirus). In New York State, different strains of rabies virus are endemic in different carrier species (bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks) and can be transmitted to other mammals like dogs, cats, cattle, horses and others. It is almost always transmitted through bite wounds, but can rarely be ingested or inhaled. The rabies virus is enveloped and can be inactivated by heat and common disinfectants. In the event of a suspicious bite wound, thorough washing and flushing of the wound can reduce the chance of contracting rabies.
Rabies immunization is very effective at preventing rabies and is legally required for all dogs and cats in NYS. Cats and dogs can be vaccinated as early as 12 weeks of age. New York State requires that all dogs and cats be rabies vaccinated by 4 months of age. Requirements in other locales may vary. The first vaccination expires in 1 year; subsequent vaccinations can be boosted at 3 year intervals. The primary (first) vaccination protects 88% of vaccinates. The booster vaccination protects close to 100% of vaccinates. Ferrets also need to be rabies vaccinated by law.
An additional benefit of rabies vaccination for dogs (and cats, if you wish), is the rabies tag. These tags can help lost pets be reunited with their owners.
In the event of a possible rabies exposure in your dog or cat, the first step is to thoroughly wash out any wounds. A post-exposure booster vaccination should be done within 5 days according to the NYS Dept. of Health. If calling to schedule such a post-exposure vaccination, please tell our receptionist that you need a post-exposure booster within 5 days of the bite; they will make the schedule work somehow.
The most suspicious encounters are with wildlife that are visibly ill or disoriented. Any bat that can get lost in your house or easily caught could be a bat disabled by rabies. Similarly, skunks and raccoons marching down the sidewalk in broad daylight are suspect.
The most dangerous vector for rabies is the bat. Most human rabies deaths in the USA are from bat rabies. If you get bitten by a rabid raccoon, you tend to register the fact and seek treatment. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is very successful. On the other hand, bat bites may not be recognized, especially in the case of a young child or an intoxicated or sleepy adult. If a bat is found in a room with a child or sleeping adult, consult the local Health Dept. They will probably recommend catching and testing the bat if possible.
Small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice etc are almost never rabid. This is probably because there are no rabies virus strains adapted to utilize them as host reservoirs. Also, these smaller species do not tend to survive encounters with other rabid animals long enough to develop the disease.
There is no rabies in birds or other non-mammals.
The incubation period for rabies can range from from days to months to even years since the virus travels not through the vascular system (blood or lymph), but through axoplasmic flow in nerves which is quite slow. This is why PEP can work, which is essentially vaccinating AFTER infection has begun. Once the virus reaches the brain and cause central nervous system disease, the host is likely to die within a matter of days.