There is no cure for rabies. You read that right. Rabies is fatal for animals—and every mammal is susceptible to it. Tens of thousands of people die every year worldwide from this disease and only 6 people have ever survived the full blown virus with a groundbreaking new treatment. So why are some people convinced that avoiding this vaccination is in their best interest and that of their pets? We’ll round up the facts on how rabies works, how you can be prepared, and what you need to know about vaccine adverse reactions so you can make informed choices about your dog’s health.
Fast and Furious
The word rabies itself comes from the Latin word for madness.
An infected dog can start spreading the virus in as little as 10 days but show no symptoms for up to 8 weeks.
Rabies spreads via biting and saliva or blood transmission. Those infected with rabies can either exhibit hyperactive symptoms (furious rabies) or weakness and loss of coordination (paralytic rabies).
Symptoms of rabies in dogs:
- Pica (eating non-food items like dirt or rocks)
- Hydrophobia (aversion to water)
- Jaw is dropped
- Inability to swallow (foaming at the mouth)
- Change in tone of bark
- Muscular lack of coordination
- Unusual shyness or aggression
- Excessive excitability
- Constant irritability/changes in attitude and behavior
- Paralysis in the mandible and larynx
- Excessive salivation (hypersalivation), or frothy saliva
When Rabies Strikes
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for an unvaccinated pet. If a vaccinated pet is bitten, your dog must go immediately for a booster shot, and be put under quarantine for 10 days.
If a human is bitten by a suspected rabies carrier, a vaccination procedure called PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) is used to quickly kill the virus before symptoms begin.
After a bite victim shows symptoms of the disease, the only known cure is the controversial Milwaukee Protocol, which involves a host of antiviral drugs and a medically induced coma. This treatment has worked for 5 patients out of 36 attempts since 2008.
How You Can Keep Your Dog Safe
If your dog is bitten by a wild animal or bites a person, a current proof of vaccination could save their life. Otherwise, six months of quarantine at the owner’s expense or euthanasia is required by the CDC to ensure no spread of rabies has occurred.
Of the core dog vaccinations recommended by the American Animal Hospital Association’s Canine Task Force, the rabies vaccination is the only one legally mandated because it is fatal and transmissible to humans. You can look up your state regulations here.
There is no effective test for rabies that works on a living animal. A sample of brain tissue is required to prove definitively that the virus is present. A Titer test can show whether antibodies are present in the bloodstream, but this only proves that an animal has received a vaccination at some point, but is not a proof of immunity.
The statistically small but very real occurrence of adverse reactions to vaccinations has some people questioning the need for so many inoculations in a dog’s lifetime.
The current best practices suggest a 1 year shot at 4-6 months, a second 1 year shot after a year, then 3 year inoculations for the life of the dog. So a dog that lives to 14 years will have had at least 7 rabies shots in his lifetime.
“In the three-year period studied (2004-2007), where it’s estimated that 120 million doses of rabies vaccine were distributed in the United States, there were 246 adverse event reports in dogs to the USDA, where rabies was identified as one of the vaccines given.”
The rabies Challenge Fund is a charitable organization that is studying the rabies vaccine in hopes of extending the amount of time between vaccinations, as well as standardizing the mandated rabies treatment schedule in every state. Even extending the efficacy of the 3 year shots to a 5 year schedule could significantly reduce the number of shots a dog receives in its lifetime.
Anytime your dog is vaccinated, keep an eye out for any of these symptoms and contact your veterinarian immediately if you feel your dog is suffering more than usual reactions to a vaccination.
- Loss of appetite
- Facial swelling and/or hives
- Pain, swelling, redness, scabbing or hair loss around the injection site
- Difficulty breathing
Help for the Vaccine-Adverse Dog
If your dog has suffered any major adverse reaction to a vaccine, you will want to discuss with your doctor which and how many vaccines you are willing to have your dog undergo. In some states, a waiver for the rabies vaccination can be obtained, for dogs who cannot tolerate the standard vaccination schedule. If your state requires the annual vs 3 year vaccine, this could be a real lifesaver for a dog who cannot tolerate vaccines.
Besides knowing the warning signs for vaccine adversity, and obtaining a medical waiver if necessary, some other considerations to keep in mind when scheduling your next round of vaccinations:
- Schedule vaccinations at a time you can be there with your dog to keep an eye out for signs of trouble.
- If you dog is already under the weather, wait until he’s feeling great before vaccinating.
- If you suspect your dog is vaccine adverse, try separating the injections instead of doing them all at once. A month between shots may give your pup enough time to recover between shots.
American Humane Association: Rabies Facts and Prevention Tips
World Health Organization: Rabies Fact Sheet
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.