Rabies Prevention, Symptoms, and Treatments in Humans and Farm Animals

Although rare, make sure your animals’ rabies vaccinations are up-to-date to ensure rabies prevention in both human and animal.

| July/August 2017

Mad dog. Vicious. Foaming at the mouth. Rabid. Few things grab our attention, or turn our blood to ice, quite like the thought of rabies. Rabies has the power to turn our best friend into our worst nightmare, and create a ravenous beast from rational man. This disease has been with us for a long time; man has been concerned with rabies at least as long as we’ve been creating written records. Ancient Babylonians wrote laws governing dog bites and the deaths they caused. Greek physicians dreamed up fantastical “cures.” The thought of rabies has inspired horror films and novels, maybe even the mythos behind vampires and werewolves.

The most frightening thing about the disease is no myth, however: By the time you know you have rabies, it’s too late. Rabies always kills its victims; the only possible cure involves a medically induced coma, a cocktail of antiviral drugs, and a high potential for brain damage. To date, it’s debatable, but only up to about 10 people have survived full-blown rabies infections. Ever.

Fortunately, rabies is nearly as rare as it is deadly. For all its notoriety, rabies accounts for only 50,000 to 75,000 deaths worldwide each year, most of them in Asia and Africa. Americans have a better chance of dying from a lightning strike than they do from rabies. Per the National Weather Service, lightning strikes killed 27 people in 2015; by contrast, the Centers for Disease Prevention estimate one to two people die from rabies in America each year. And while rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal, it is also 100 percent preventable in humans.

We have Louis Pasteur and his pioneering work on vaccines to thank for that. Vaccinations are effective against rabies, both before and after exposure, assuming they are administered in time. That’s because rabies travels through the nervous system, not through blood, and it travels slowly. That fatality rate of one to two Americans is so low because tens of thousands of people receive vaccinations each year in America, and because conscientious pet owners keep their animals vaccinated.

The rabies virus can affect nearly all mammals, although it is most often seen in dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, and, yes, bats. Opossums seem to be highly resistant to rabies, and there are no reports of small rodents or rabbits transmitting the virus. Genetic mapping suggests that rabies may have originated in bats, crossing over to dogs about the same time dogs stopped being wolves.

The virus affects the nervous system of its victims, causing erratic behavior, poor coordination, fearlessness toward humans, extreme aggressiveness, and famously, excessive salivation (foaming at the mouth) and an unreasoning fear of water (hydrophobia), before unconsciousness and ultimately, death. Early symptoms resemble most other viral infections, with weakness, fever, nausea, headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, and a general lousy-feeling condition, along with pain around the bite area, making them very hard to diagnose accurately.

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