Rabies is a disease caused by a virus affecting the central nervous system. In most cases, unvaccinated dogs infect people through bites as the virus spreads in their saliva. You can also get infected if you have a scratch or another wound and it comes into direct contact with an infected dog’s saliva. Wild animals can have rabies as well but it’s rarely transmitted to people.

If you get infected, the incubation period (time from infection to the first symptoms appearing) for rabies is usually two to three months but can be shorter or a lot longer – up to one year. First symptoms include fever and pain accompanied by tingling or burning sensations around the wound site. As the virus attacks the central nervous system, it causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. The disease is incurable and most cases lead to death.

There are two forms of rabies:

  • Furious rabies – as the name suggests, it produces dramatic symptoms, such as hyperactivity, excitable behaviour, hallucinations, poor coordination, hydrophobia (fear of water) and aerophobia (fear of fresh air or drafts). After several days, it results in fatal cardio-respiratory arrest (irreversible heart and lung failure).
  • Paralytic rabies develops more slowly but it’s also devastating. Starting from the wound site, muscles gradually become paralysed until the person falls into a coma and eventually dies. 

There is no cure but if you get bitten by a suspected rabid animal (an animal ill with rabies), there’s something called post-exposure prophylaxis and it’s the emergency treatment for such cases. Its main aim is to prevent the virus from entering the central nervous system. Depending on the severity of the wound, it may include thorough washing of the wound with water and soap for at least 15 minutes, local disinfectant treatment, a course of rabies vaccine and the administration of rabies immunoglobulin or monoclonal antibodies into the wound.

Even though rabies vaccine exists, it’s not routinely administered because it only protects you from rabies for one to two years. It is recommended for people who work with animals in high-risk places and those who travel to or live in areas where rabies is more widespread.  The best strategy to avoid rabies infection is regular vaccination of all dogs, including puppies.