Vaccinating your dog against rabies could be a matter of life and death.
With a fatality rate of nearly 100 percent, rabies is the deadliest infectious disease on the planet. Once the signs of infection appear, there are no treatment options. But thanks to widely available and highly effective vaccines, rabies infections have become extremely uncommon in dogs in the United States.
Keeping rabies at bay isn't just a big deal for dogs—it's important for humans too. That's because rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can pass from dogs (and other animals) to people. And it's just as deadly in humans as it is in dogs.
The rabies virus is present in the saliva of an infectious animal and is most often transmitted to another animal via bite. Though less common, the virus can also spread when infectious saliva comes into contact with a scratch or open wound or with a mucus membrane (e.g. eyes, nose, mouth). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contact with the blood, urine, or feces of a rabid animal is not a cause for concern.
Once the rabies virus is transmitted to a new host, it travels through the nervous system from the site of infection to the brain. During this time, which can take several weeks, the infected animal won't have any clinical signs and can't infect any other animals. But when the rabies virus reaches the infected animal's brain, it multiplies and moves into the salivary glands. It's at this point that most animals begin showing signs of infection.
All mammals can get rabies, but the CDC lists bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and mongooses as important disease reservoirs in the United States.
"With many other diseases, there's a chance of recovery if the pet is infected," says Brandi Whittemore, DVM, of Hancock Veterinary Services in Pineville, Mo. "But this isn't the case with rabies. The disease is uniformly fatal once signs appear." For Whittemore, the importance of the vaccine cannot be overstated, and not just because it's so deadly in dogs. "I would rather a pet have the rabies vaccine over any other vaccine due to the public health implications," she explains.
It might come as a surprise to learn that the rabies virus kills nearly 60,000 people (most of whom are children) a year across the globe. Nearly all—99 percent—of human infections are transmitted through dog bites. But Whittemore says it's still a very rare occurrence in the United States because of the prevalence of vaccinated pets.
Luke Gamble, BVetMed, founder and CEO of Mission Rabies, a nonprofit that runs vaccination and education programs in rabies hotspots like India and Sri Lanka, echoes those sentiments. He describes the rabies vaccination as the safest and most effective way to protect both pets and people. "By keeping your pets up to date on their rabies vaccination, you can help prevent them from acquiring the disease from wildlife or other unvaccinated pets, and in so doing, prevent possible transmission to your family or other people," says Gamble. "Even in the U.S. where human rabies cases are rare, we must all take action to prevent disease outbreaks."
It's also important to note that if your dog has never been vaccinated and is suspected to have come in contact with rabies, the CDC recommends immediate euthanasia. The only other option is to place the dog in strict quarantine with no direct human or animal contact for four months, but that's not a guarantee the animal will recover.
The rabies virus poses such a serious threat to pets and people that in most states you're legally required to vaccinate your dog between 12 and 16 weeks of age, with a booster shot a year later, says Whittemore. You can learn what's required in your area by visiting with your veterinarian or by contacting your local health department.
Local laws will also determine how often your dog will need a vaccine booster shot. It may be required once a year or once every three years. According to Whittemore, the difference between the 1-year and 3-year vaccines essentially comes down to labeling as the components are the same.
If your dog comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal, your veterinarian may give your pet an extra vaccination—even if your dog is up to date—just to be safe. And while no vaccine is 100 percent effective, the rabies vaccine is extremely successful at protecting dogs against infection.
The 1-year rabies vaccine tends to cost around $20 to $30. The 3-year vaccine is typically around twice the price of the 1-year vaccine and is thus the more wallet-friendly option in the long term. However, if the price is a barrier, you may be able to find a low-cost vaccination clinic or animal shelter near you that can provide the shot for free or at a reduced rate.
As with other vaccines that stimulate an immune response, the rabies vaccine can cause side effects like mild fever and tiredness, says Whittemore. Your dog may also experience soreness at the injection site. Whittemore notes that these side effects typically resolve within one or two days.
Though rare, there's also a chance your dog could have an allergic reaction to being vaccinated against rabies. Associated side effects include facial swelling, vomiting, and hives. If you think your dog is having an allergic reaction, seek immediate care. And if you're ever worried or unsure about your dog's reaction to a vaccine, don't hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian for advice.