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5 questions about rabies and pets

As pet owners, most of us have had our pets inoculated against rabies. But what exactly is rabies, what animals are at risk, what can you do if you’ve been bitten by an animal you suspect is rabid, and how can you safeguard your pets against the disease? To help answer these questions and hopefully clarify some misconceptions about rabies, we’ve created this quick fact sheet.

Five Facts About Rabies

1. What is rabies? Rabies is a viral illness that affects mammals. Rabies is caused by the lyssavirus, which takes its name from the Greek word meaning “rage” or “fury”—not surprising, given that the most familiar behavior displayed by an infected animal is heightened aggression. The disease affects many mammals, most commonly dogs, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and even bats.

Rabies is transmitted most often through saliva by a bite that breaks the skin. Symptoms emerge after an incubation period of 3 to 8 weeks. During this period an animal may seem healthy and normal. After symptom onset, however, the disease progresses rapidly.

Symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Excessive salivation
  • Paralysis (later in the disease’s progression)

Rabies can only be transmitted after an animal shows symptoms, but it is always fatal to the infected animal—usually within 10 days of symptom onset. The test to confirm the presence of rabies is done postmortem. There is currently no cure for an animal that has contracted the disease.

2. What if you’ve been bitten by an animal you suspect to be rabid? If you’ve received a bite from an animal you suspect may have rabies, time is critical. Clean the wound with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. A doctor can evaluate the wound and test your blood, skin, hair, (or in some cases spinal fluid) for the presence of rabies antibodies. If rabies is suspected, your doctor will administer a rabies vaccine. It’s important that you receive the vaccine as soon as possible after the bite. Because the rabies virus has a relatively long incubation period, post-bite prophylaxis with the rabies vaccine is highly effective if given soon after exposure.

3. What if your pet has been bitten by an animal you suspect to be rabid? If your pet has been bitten during an altercation with a wild animal that you think may be rabid (ex. raccoon or skunk), seek veterinary care immediately. If your animal is not vaccinated against rabies and you are not able to capture the attacking animal for testing, your pet may have to endure a 6-month quarantine period (at your expense) to rule out the presence of the disease.

If you are able to capture the attacking animal, it can be euthanized and its brain tissue tested for rabies. If this test result is negative for rabies, your pet can be released from quarantine. The best way to avoid this scenario is to get your pet vaccinated against rabies as state law requires. (Check online or with your vet to be sure pets are in compliance with all state laws regarding rabies vaccination.)

4. What can you do if you suspect your pet has rabies? State-mandated vaccination has greatly reduced the number of rabies cases in domestic animals. However, a pet suspected of having rabies is usually quarantined for a period of 10 days. This is because symptomatic animals die from the disease within this period. If your pet survives the 10-day quarantine, a rabies diagnosis can be ruled out, and your vet can seek other causes to explain your pet’s symptoms.

5. What are some myths and misconceptions about rabies?

  • Rabid animals are afraid of water. False. Rabies causes muscle spasms that can make swallowing painful, so many symptomatic animals drink less often than their healthy counterparts.
  • To confirm a rabies diagnosis, the affected animal’s head must be removed. False. While a rabies diagnosis in an animal is confirmed from brain tissue obtained postmortem, the animal need not be decapitated.
  • Post-bite rabies treatment in humans involves five painful vaccinations to the belly. False. While it is true that post-exposure rabies prophylaxis involves separate five inoculations at five different body sites, they are no more painful than any other vaccination and does not need to be administered via the stomach muscles.

We hope this fact sheet answers your questions about rabies, its prevention, and its treatment. We hope you and your pets have a safe and healthy autumn!

Editor’s Note: Reducing the risk of rabies infections—both pets and humans—is the aim of the World Rabies Day campaign. With this information on rabies prevention, you can help keep you and your pets safe.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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