Rabies elicits fear in one and all, and very rightly so. It is one of the most dreaded dog illnesses, as there is no cure or treatment for this disease that is caused by a deadly virus. This virus is shed with the saliva of an infected animal. When such an animal bites a healthy animal, the virus enters the body of the bitten creature. It then travels through the nerves to the spinal cord, from where it reaches the brain. A dog that has thus contracted the disease will show the symptoms only after the virus has reached the brain. The incubation period of rabies in dogs varies greatly. However, it ranges from two to eight weeks.
There are three stages of rabies. A dog may go through any one or all the stages. However, death is certain. As a dog moves through the various stages, it will show the symptoms specific to each stage.
During this stage, dogs show nervousness and anxiety. While friendly dogs become shy and avoid interaction with human beings and other animals, aggressive canines appear docile. Some may even have fever. Most infected animals constantly lick the part of their body that was bitten. This stage lasts for about 2 to 3 days.
Dogs, in this phase, show more erratic behavior. They become restless, more aggressive, and show an increased urge to eat, even non-edible things. They are seen roaming or pacing around the house, and if caged, they are observed to bite and attack the enclosures. Disorientation and seizures are commonly seen. Some dogs suffering from the disease may die even before entering the next phase. This phase lasts from 1 to 7 days.
As the nerves in the head and throat are affected, the infected dog will start drooling and will not be able to swallow. Hence, dogs, in this stage of rabies avoid drinking water or fluids. Due to this behavior, rabies is also known as 'hydrophobia', which means the fear of water. The lower jaw of a rabid dog (dog suffering from rabies) seems to be constantly hanging as the muscles of the face and diaphragm get paralyzed. As the condition progresses, the animal may experience respiratory failure, and eventually die.
As soon as one sees any of these symptoms in a dog, the person must inform the local authorities. It is important to stay away from rabid dogs, even if they are pets, as this disease does get transmitted from animals to human beings too.
Early diagnosis is difficult as they behave normally until the virus has infected the brain tissue. A dog may already have the rabies virus dividing in the cells of its body, but does not show any physical changes. There are no blood tests either that can confirm the presence of the disease-causing microorganisms (the virus) inside the body. The only diagnosis possible is to examine the brain tissue of the dog, and this is possible only after the animal is dead. So sadly, for dogs suffering from rabies, euthanasia is required.
As already mentioned, rabies cannot be treated or cured. Hence, adopting preventive measures is the best approach to deal with this disease. Vaccination is an important aspect―there are rabies shots to ensure protection against the virus. Rabies vaccine for dogs involves introducing a small dose of the killed virus into the dog's body. This triggers the production of antibodies in the dog that fight future infection, without actually causing the disease.
It is important to minimize exposure of one's pet to wildlife to protect it from rabies. Whenever you take your dog out, leash walk it or keep a careful eye on it. Rabies is very common in wild animals like bats, raccoons, coyotes, and foxes. These creatures of the wild are the primary source of infection in domestic animals. Be careful of any rabid animal, even if it appears calm and tame.
Surveillance of rabies is very important to control the disease. Any incidence of a domestic animal contracting the virus should be reported to the authorities. Rabies is not only dangerous to animals, but human beings are also at an equal risk of dying from it. There are a number of cases where the disease has been transmitted to owners. Proper care and timely vaccination are the only ways to prevent our canine friends from suffering the miseries of this fatal disease.