Determining An Animal Is Rabid Takes Brains (literally)
You Can't Confirm Rabies By An Animal's Appearance
Anytime is a good time to review the facts on rabies, and to make sure our kids who are old enough to understand know the facts as well.
One of the first things we need to understand is that you can't tell if an animal is rabid by its behavior or body condition. You hear so many people say things like, "He looked rabid to me," or "You could tell he had rabies," or "I doubt he had rabies 'cause he looked OK."
The only way to confirm rabies is by the microscopic examination of brain tissue using a direct fluorescent antibody test. This requires that the animal be euthanized.
They can diagnose the disease after finding the rabies virus in any part of the brain, but in order to rule out rabies, the test must include tissue from at least two locations, preferably the brain stem and the cerebellum.
In the United States, the results of a rabies test are typically available within 24 to 72 hours. The test itself only takes about 2 hours, but it takes time to extract the tissue samples and ship them to a state public health or veterinary diagnostic lab.
We humans can be tested for rabies, too…and luckily for us, we don’t have to be euthanized. There are a bunch of tests they perform, though, because no one test is sufficient. They can test samples of saliva, serum, spinal fluid, and skin biopsies of hair follicles at the nape of the neck.
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This virus can be transmitted through the air or via all bodily fluids, which makes it highly contagious. And, it can be deadly. The good news is, it's preventable.
The Why's and Wherefore's of Rabies
Rabies is a virus that affects, and is transmitted exclusively by, mammals. It's not spread by insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians or fish. The disease attacks the central nervous system of its victims and death is certain for animals. Humans can be treated
If treatment is begun within hours of exposure, humans receive rabies immune globulin. There is no treatment for animals, however there is vaccination. In most states the law requires dogs, cats and ferrets to be vaccinated against rabies.
People can be vaccinated, too, and it's common practice for folks who work around animals, such as veterinary personnel, zookeepers, groomers, animal control, problem animal control and wildlife personnel.
The disease is almost always spread in the saliva of an infected animal when it bites, and it usually requires a deep puncture wound rather than a scratch. The farther from the brain the bite wound, the longer it takes for the slow-moving virus to reach the brain.
Most commonly, clinical signs in dogs appear between 3 and 8 weeks after exposure, between 2 and 6 weeks in cats, and between 3 and 6 weeks in people. However it can take as long as 6 months for symptoms to appear. Death usually occurs a week or two after symptoms appear.
Speaking of symptoms, the early ones can be attributed to any number of conditions, so it's not always an easy call. There are three phases to rabies, and animals may go through one, two or all three of them.
The Three Faces Of Rabies
The first is known as the prodromal phase, and it usually lasts a couple of days in cats, 2 to 3 days in dogs. This phase messes with your mind. Animals that are normally even tempered may become agitated and animals that are usually cranky may become docile.
In this early stage you may also see nervousness or the animal may seek to be alone, and fever is also common. Cats particularly go through behavior changes and tend to have more fever spikes.
The next phase you may or may not see is the one known as the "furious" phase, in which the animal becomes restless and irritable, may be hypersensitive to noise and light, may become disoriented, and may have seizures. This phase can last up to a week.
The third stage is known as the "dumb" or paralytic phase. As the animal's nervous system comes under attack there is usually difficulty in swallowing, so excessive salivation is noted. This is probably where the infamous "foaming at the mouth" scenario comes from. They also may make choking sounds.
In the final stages of the dumb phase the diaphragm is paralyzed and breathing becomes labored. The animal then goes into respiratory failure and succumbs.
But It Doesn't Have To Be That Way
The key to the whole thing is prevention. Discuss rabies vaccinations with your vet because inoculation protocols really haven't been established. Some vets believe that annual shots are still the way to go, others do them every three years.
For your pets' safety, your peace of mind, and to stay within the law, just be sure your dogs, cats and ferrets are up to date with their rabies shot.