Rabies: all you need to know

Rabies: all you need to know

Louis Pasteur tested the first human rabies vaccine in 1885 and contributed to the development of an effective vaccine that can be used on individuals both as preventive and curative treatment. The test was successful, and Pasteur saved a boy’s life who had been attacked by a rabid dog. His work and research on rabies remain prevalent to the understanding of the rabies virus and how it affects patients.

Nowadays, we tend to think of rabies as a threat that belongs either firmly in the past or impoverished areas. But does rabies remain a threat for you and your pet? Here is what you need to know about the viral disease.

#1. Can I get rabies in the UK?

The rabies virus is practically non-existent in the UK. Rare occurrences of the virus still exist in wild bats in the UK, which means that, while risks are minimum, the virus has not been eradicated at a national level. Thankfully, the rabies vaccine, along with targeted treatment in case of exposure, can be highly effective.

Rabies can be found all around the world. But visitors in countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America are more likely to be exposed to contaminated animals. Therefore, your GP will recommend getting a rabies vaccine if you are planning to visit high-risk destinations.

Most common small wildlife animals in the UK can’t get infected or don’t transmit the rabies virus, including rodents and birds. Risks for your pet in the UK are, consequently, limited. But, you can’t be sure whether your pet will get in contact with dogs that have travelled abroad and are potentially carrying the virus. Due to the nature of infection and incubation, contaminated animals may not immediately display rabies symptoms. As long as the virus doesn’t travel through the saliva, a bite or scratch will not be contagious during the incubation period. However, the disease evolves rapidly.

#2. What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the brain and spinal cord of mammals, humans, dogs and cats alike. Even though the rabies vaccine is successful in treating the virus, the fear of rabies is part of every culture around the world. Indeed, once the symptoms appear, the chances of survival are low, and in most cases, the patient – human or animal – will die from the rabies virus. Rabies in humans remains a real threat, causing over 17, 400 human deaths worldwide in 2015, primarily in Asia and Africa.

All mammals can be carriers of the rabies virus, which means that you can find it in dogs, bats, cats, foxes, and even cattle. Small rodents have never shown any signs of infection or transmission. Rabies is typically spread by a bite from an infected animal or a scratch. You can get infected if contaminated saliva enters your system. It doesn’t spread through unbroken skin or between people, though. Unfortunately, the period of incubation can vary greatly, depending on the location and gravity of the wound. The typical period between rabies infection and the apparition of the first rabies symptoms is between 1 and 3 months in humans. However, rabies in dogs and rabies in cats can develop at a different pace, often days. In some cases, the rabies virus can remain dormant for several years after a bite.

#3. How long does the rabies vaccine last?

The longevity of the rabies vaccine in humans can vary from 3 to 10 years, depending on your immune system and on the booster dose you’ve received. The rabies vaccine course involves 3 doses, which you need to get to prevent rabies risk. Individuals who are at high risk of exposure through their jobs or frequent travel should plan yearly vaccine booster doses for 3 to 5 years before renewing their vaccination. If you are not at risk of high exposure to rabies, the vaccine protects a maximum of 10 years.

The rabies vaccine for dogs and cats should be renewed every 3 years for safety. If you take your pet to potentially dangerous destinations, you need to renew the vaccine annually.

If you have been exposed to rabies, you will need an additional course of injections each year, even though you were vaccinated. In this instance, the rabies vaccine lasts only until the next yearly injection. This involved process is necessary to rebuild the immune response. Individuals who were not vaccinated receive additional booster doses every year.

#4. What are the rabies vaccine side effects?

As with every vaccine, you can expect some mild side effects if you tend to react to injections. Typically, patients, humans and pets, experience some swelling and tenderness in the injection area in the first 24 hours to 48 hours after the rabies vaccine. However, these subside rapidly.

Some rabies vaccine side effects can be safely ignored, such as a mild fever, headache and muscle aches.

Pet owners can also observe fever, sluggishness, and mild loss of appetite in their pet immediately after the injection.

However, it’s essential to pay close attention to more severe side effects of the vaccine. Some people may experience vomiting and a rash, which can be reported to their local GP for assistance.

Dogs and cats can also react negatively to the rabies vaccine. Extreme swelling in the face and the limbs, vomiting, diarrhoea, and weaknesses can indicate complications. It is recommended to seek veterinary assistance if your pet exhibits any signs of discomfort.

#5. What are rabies symptoms?

As mentioned, the rabies virus can stay dormant for up to 6 years. Therefore, during the incubation period, you may not experience any rabies symptoms. You or your pet should get treated before any symptoms appear as death can be sudden.

Surprisingly, rabies symptoms are common between humans and animals. It is not uncommon to experience fever and tiredness as your body tries to fight the infection. Other rabies symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Pain or sensitivity around the wound, for most human and animals.
  • Insomnia and restlessness in humans and animals
  • Anxiety and irritability in humans.
  • Pet owners will also spot extreme behavioural changes, aggressivity and anxiety.
  • Some pets and individuals can develop hypersensitivity to light, touch and sound.
  • Difficulty swallowing for human and animal patients. For pets, it is the infamous foaming mouth of the rabid dog, which is the result of the nervous system being affected in the most advanced stages of the virus.

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