The earliest signs of rabies in dogs are anxiety, nervousness, mild agitation, unusual behavior changes, itchiness, and fever. These signs usually last two to three days before getting worse and progressing to the second stage, which includes aggression (more on that below).
The rabies incubation period (time from of exposure to onset of signs) is highly variable, anywhere from three weeks to six months. Your dog could have rabies virus in their saliva up to five days before showing signs of rabies, making it prudent to use caution around any unvaccinated dog who suffers a bite wound from an unknown animal for a full six months.
The foundation of rabies prevention is vaccination. The vaccine is generally safe, although like any vaccine, a dog rabies vaccine can have side effects.
The rabies vaccine for dogs is a “killed” vaccine. This means there is no live virus in the vaccine, so it can never accidentally infect a dog. It also makes the vaccine generally very safe. Having said that, anytime any vaccine is given, there is always the risk of side effects.
Rabies Vaccine Side Effects
Reactions to any vaccine may be mild (general malaise and lack of appetite lasting 24 hours or less), moderate (hives, facial swelling, vomiting/diarrhea), or severe (anaphylactic shock, which may be life-threatening). There may be fever and localized pain at the injection site. The rabies vaccine sometimes leaves a bump under the skin (granuloma), which may take months to go away. And finally, there are reports of a rabies vaccine-induced vasculitis occasionally occurring. Vasculitis is inflammation of blood vessels, and it can result in loss of blood supply to tissue. It starts near the site of the injection and can cause hair loss, swelling, pain, and skin damage.
Rabies Second Stage
The second phase of rabies symptoms, called the furious phase, lasts one to seven days with signs including aggression, unpredictability, attacking their crates if confined, snapping at apparently nothing, disorientation, incoordination, tremors, and seizures. Depression, lethargy, weakness, and any neurologic derangement (e.g., blindness, circling, head pressing) may occur. Death can occur at any time during this phase.
Final Phase of Rabies Symptoms
The final phase of rabies infection is called the paralytic phase. Dogs will begin to drool as they can no longer swallow. There may be a noticeable change in their voice, they will lose jaw tone and function, and they will become progressively paralyzed. Death usually occurs within two to four days.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a fatal viral disease affecting both humans and animals. It is usually transmitted by a bite from an infected animal, although infected saliva simply making contact with a break in the skin can do it, too. The virus travels along nerves from the site of the bite to the central nervous system and brain, and finally to the salivary glands.
There is no treatment for rabies. You must prevent it. The first rabies vaccine can be given to puppies at 12 weeks of age. A booster is recommended one year later, then every one to three years depending on state and local laws. Boostering every three years is typically the norm, but check with your veterinarian and local municipality.