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Determining An Animal Is Rabid Takes Brains (literally)

Updated on August 24, 2013
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


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.

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.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hello Highland Terrier. I can appreciate your concern. Here in Massachusetts if your dog tangles with a wild animal, and you have proof that the dog's rabies shots are up to date, there's no problem.

      If his shots are not up to date, or you didn't save the paperwork you got when he was vaccinated, he can be ordered euthanized. But usually, they just order him quarantined for a period. If they can collect the wild animal and it tests positive for rabies, that could be another story.

    • Highland Terrier profile image

      Highland Terrier 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Have to be honest and say I did not think of raccoons or any other wild animal. I would not however like my two little pets put to death and then get a negative. Indeed to say I'd do my nut is putting it mildly.

      I would never stop screaming at whatever government department was responsible for such a disaster.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Doc, I may have missed something along the way, or maybe I'm just dense, but I'm wondering: if the test is antemortem what necessitates the killing of the animal? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of the test?

      I knew from your comment that you knew I was just doing a good-natured "Gotcha" on the grammar issue, and it made me feel comfortable. I just couldn't resist. I feel kind of bad that it was misinterpreted, though. Thanks for the info. Regards, Bob

      Hi, Jaye, I think every state recognizes the exemption but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. I share your frustration with government. I'm pretty satisfied with our locals. The mayor and city council work well together and there aren't many controversies. The state and federal governments are an entirely different matter. They're bloated, inefficient and out of control. We've got to take them back. Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Thanks for the followup info, Bob. I hope it holds true in every state. I live in Mississippi and sometimes think this state's "leadership" (and I use that word tongue-in-cheek when referring to our governor and lawmakers) is stuck in a 1950s time warp!

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      I laughed when I read your comment on the grammar since I understood you were just joking, but for someone that does not understand your sense of humor (and who has not read all of your hubs!) I guess it seemed like sarcasm. Oh well. Like you point out, that is the danger of the written word.

      The rabies test was developed by Dr Manuel Torres-Anjel because a large number of cattle in Colombia are exposed to vampire bats, and of course they are often rabid. They are still attempting to find a test that is not expensive since it is so expensive to kill every cow that has what looks like a bat bite on her neck. All animals with tactile hairs (dogs, cats, etc) can be biopsied. It would probably not be feasible on a racoon, however. Who would want to hold on to it during the procedure?

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Highland Terrier, thanks for stopping by. DrMark's comment, that non-lethal tests for animals have been available since the 80's addresses your point. I wasn't aware of that, but the same thought had occurred to me, also.

      I figured it was simply a matter of economics & safety vs perceived value. Who would be willing to pay for someone to take the risk of handling an uncooperative raccoon, obtaining the necessary specimens and maintaining him til results are back? And multiply that by God knows how many suspicious cases. And they'd have to perform several tests since no single test is sufficient. Probably no one.

      Until they come up with a quick and easy surefire test, I guess it's gonna continue to suck to be a rabies-suspected woodland creature. Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hello, Doc, thanks for contributing. I didn't know about the test for animals but, like Highland Terrier, wondered about it. My info came from the CDC website. They had sections entitled "Diagnosis in animals" and "Diagnosis in humans." The section on animals didn't mention non-lethal tests.

      I may call you a lot of things, but I'd never call you a troll :) If you're still checking your question about negative comments, you'll see I was taken down a peg over my response. I guess not everyone connects the dots between irony and humor.

      I suppose it's possible that he connected dots between irony and sarcasm, which was not my of the weaknesses of the written word compared to the spoken word. You understood that I was trying to be funny and take a good-natured poke at the irony.

      It's always nice to have you comment, thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      Hello, Jay, nice to see you. I think the law allows for a waiver for just the circumstances you describe. Owners would have to bring a statement from the veterinarian to their city or town clerk's office and perhaps the Health Dept. I believe a special tag is issued under those circumstances. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I believe that dogs with prior rabies vaccinations and boosters should be allowed titer measurement if they've had a prior severe reaction to rabies vaccine. If the titer shows sufficient antibodies for protection against the disease, that should be sufficient, especially for animals that stay indoors most of the time, only go outdoors on leash and are not around other animals (wild or domestic).

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      The paragraph should read "the only way to diagnose rabies legally in the US is by micrscopic examination of the brain". Good alternatives have been available for many, many years. You can google "antemortem rabies diagnosis" or read this article from Brazil. This is in a human, but the same sort of tests have been available, using the tactile hairs of dogs, since the early 1980s. The law still requires animals to be killed, however.

      Don't call me a troll for arguing! I didn't make one complaint about grammar, did I?

    • Highland Terrier profile image

      Highland Terrier 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      If it possible to test humans for rabies by non lethal means why is it not possible for other mammals? Surely the saliva and serum test would be similar and perhaps the spinal fluid test would be possible.

      Skin and hair follicles are I grant you different.

      Still it is true prevention is the way to go in this and all illness.

      Thanks for reminding us of deadly virus.