Rabies is a devastating viral disease that affects the central nervous system of all mammals, including dogs, cats, and people.

Understanding Rabies in Dogs

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of a rabid animal? For me, it’s a wild raccoon wandering the streets midday. While a slightly different image may come to your mind, one thing is certain: Rabies is scary. It’s a devastating viral disease that affects the central nervous system of all mammals, including dogs, cats, and people. It often results in death. 

The good news: Rabies in our pets is preventable. 

How Rabies Spreads

Since rabid animals secrete the virus through their saliva, rabies is primarily passed to dogs through an infected animal’s bite. Transmission can also occur through a scratch or when infected saliva comes into contact with an open flesh wound.

In North America, the raccoon, skunk, fox, coyote, and bat are all top sources of infection. 

What Happens After a Bite? 

After a bite occurs, the rabies virus travels through the nerves and spinal cord to the brain. Once the brain is infected, the virus multiplies and spreads to the salivary glands.


Once the virus reaches the brain, symptoms can appear. Get this: The incubation period (AKA the time it takes for symptoms to appear) can last weeks or even months. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual“Most cases in dogs develop within 21 to 80 days after exposure, but the incubation period may be considerably shorter or longer.”

Once your dog begins to show symptoms, they progress rapidly and develop in one of two forms: the furious form or the paralytic (“dumb rabies”) form. Dogs can also experience a combination of the two.

Furious Form – Just like the name implies, this form is characterized by extreme behavioral changes. Once friendly and calm dogs can become irritable and aggressive. 

Paralytic (or Dumb Rabies) Form – Just like the name implies, this form is characterized by weakness and paralysis. Dogs often experience excess saliva and an inability to swallow.

Once clinical signs appear, death usually occurs in less than a week.

In summary, symptoms can include: 

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Unusual behavioral changes: irritability, aggression, excitability, shyness
  • Pica
  • Lack of muscular coordination
  • Paralysis
  • Inability to swallow
  • Drooping jaw
  • Excessive or frothy salivation

Diagnosis & Treatment

If you suspect your dog has rabies, call your vet immediately. You’ll need to get your dog in a portable crate and to your vet’s office. If you don’t feel safe getting your dog in a crate, contact animal control officials for help.

There is no treatment for rabies in dogs. Your dog will need to be kept in quarantine isolation for about 10 days and monitored by a professional. With that said, animals with clear and severe rabies symptoms will be euthanized to avoid unnecessary suffering and the risk of spreading the disease to others. 

Unfortunately, diagnosing rabies is difficult and, in the United States, it’s done after death. The only way to definitively diagnose the virus in dogs is through laboratory testing. Samples of brain tissue are taken and used for a direct fluorescent antibody test. 


Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted to humans. Since it’s a devastating virus, difficult to diagnose, and there is no treatment, in the United States, the rabies vaccination is mandatory by law. 

Puppies typically receive their first rabies vaccine at some time between 12-16 weeks old. They’ll receive a booster at one year.

While rabies boosters are required by law, the frequency depends on each state. Here’s an interesting fact: The one-year rabies vaccine and three-year rabies vaccinations are the same. The volume and potency are identical. The only difference is the labeling and what the vet marks on the certificate required by law. 

As with any vaccine, there is a potential for sudden side effects. While usually mild (decreased appetite and more tired than usual), some dogs do experience a severe reaction (vomiting, diarrhea, hives, swelling around the face, difficulty breathing, and even collapse). My toy Poodle Gigi has a horrible reaction from the rabies vaccine – I share our stories in THIS blog post.

In some states, you may be able to work with your veterinarian to get a medical exemption. I live in a state with no medical exemptions. If you have any questions or concerns about rabies or the rabies vaccine, speak with your veterinarian. 

Limit Exposure

Along with vaccinations, don’t let your dog roam around outside unsupervised. Additionally, keep your dog on a leash when walking or hiking in wooded areas where wild animal encounters are more common.