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Reducing rabies risk: Dog and cat running around in grass

World Rabies Day: Raising awareness and reducing risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), rabies kills over 59,000 people worldwide. Most deaths occur in developing countries where poverty prevents adequate vaccination of stray or feral animals. In the US, education, vaccination, and treatment of infected persons has greatly reduced annual rabies deaths to fewer than three per year—but awareness and vigilance are essential to keep these numbers low.

Since 2007, World Rabies Day (observed annually on September 28) has helped to educate millions of people about the signs and symptoms of rabies, while promoting effective methods of rabies prevention, including the vaccination of over 7 million dogs.

What is Rabies? How is Rabies Transmitted?

Rabies is caused by a virus (Lyssavirus) that attacks the central nervous system, causing inflammation of the brain and spinal cord in some mammal species. It is transmitted through saliva during the late stages of the illness, when infected animals shed the virus just prior to death. This is how rabies, though fatal in animals, is able to move from host to host. Note: Rabies is not spread through blood, urine, feces, or airborne transmission.

What Are the Signs of Rabies in Pets?

Since the rabies virus attacks the nervous system, the symptoms range from behavioral to physical and vary in severity throughout the exposure period.

Signs of rabies in dogs. Signs of rabies in dogs include extreme personality changes—like intense aggression and irritability. They may display hydrophobia (fear of water) and excessive salivation. Additionally, they may experience loss of muscle coordination, seizures and paralysis in the jaw.

Signs of rabies in cats. Like dogs, signs of rabies in cats may include behavior changes—extreme aggressiveness or excitability. Also, lack of muscle coordination, seizures, changes in vocal patterns, and tremors.

How Can You Tell if a Wild Animal Has Rabies?

A rabies-infected animal may display symptoms of general sickness, which can include normally nocturnal animals being out in daylight hours or seeming “drunk” (lack of muscle coordination) or fearless around people. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing, excessive drool or salivation, spontaneous biting at objects, and partial or complete paralysis of the limbs. If you encounter a wild animal displaying these symptoms, alert your community’s animal control office immediately.

What Can You Do to Prevent Rabies?

Here are a few basic tips on preventing the spread of rabies infection in both pets and humans.

Stay current on your pets’ rabies vaccines. Vaccines are the reason the U.S. currently enjoys such a low number of rabies-related deaths. Because rabies is 100% fatal to dogs, the rabies vaccine is considered a core vaccine (essential) by veterinarians and is typically administered to puppies as young as 3 months of age and kittens as young as 8 weeks. Both 1-year and 3-year versions of the vaccine are available, and some states and municipalities require rabies vaccination for all dogs as a condition of ownership.

Editor’s Note: Veterinarian Dr. Lee discusses rare rabies vaccination side effects in pets.

Do not approach animals—especially raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes, or coyotes—in the wild. Even if they are not infected with rabies, they are wild creatures, not pets or playthings. (Interestingly, opossums are remarkably resistant to the rabies virus, though a bite from an opossum can be severe.)

Do not approach any wild animal that appears sick. Learn the symptoms of rabies in animals and keep your pets from contact with wildlife. Report encounters with wild animals acting oddly to your local animal control department. If your pet is involved in a fight with a wild animal, seek veterinarian care immediately.

If your pet was involved in a fight with a wild animal or is experiencing signs of rabies, contact your veterinarian immediately. Depending on the severity of symptoms, you may need to contact the local animal control department to transport your pet for quarantine, observation and treatment.

This World Rabies Day, take a moment to be sure your pets are current on their rabies vaccinations and boosters. We hope this information will help your keep you and your pets healthy and 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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