What are the signs of rabies? (Part V of Rabies 101)

The incubation period for rabies can vary from two weeks to four months or even more.  The speed at which clinical signs develop depends upon the site of the infection (the nearer the bite is to the brain and spinal cord, the quicker the virus reaches the nervous tissue), the severity of the bite, and the amount of virus injected by the bite.

Once the virus enters the body, it travels the nerves to the brain.  Dogs and cats show a variety of signs, including fearfulness, aggression, excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, staggering and seizures.  In the first phase,  the animal may undergo a marked change in temperament.  A quiet animal may become agitated, while active pets become nervous or shy.  Rabid wild animals may only display unusual behavior; for example, an animal that is usually only seen at night may be seen wandering in the daytime.  In addition to those signs seen in dogs and cats, horses, cattle, sheep, and goats with rabies may exhibit depression, self mutilation, or increased sensitivity to light.

There are two recognized forms of the clinical disease: Furious rabies occurs when the rabid animal becomes highly excitable and displays evidence of a depraved appetite, eating and chewing stones, earth and rubbish (pica).  Paralysis eventually sets in and the rabid animal may be unable to eat or drink.  Hydrophobia (fear of water) is not a sign of rabies in dogs and cats.  This is a feature of human rabies.  The animal finally dies in a violent seizure.  Dumb rabies is the common form.  There is progressive paralysis involving the limbs, distortion of the face and a similar difficulty swallowing.  Owners will frequently think the animal has something stuck in the mouth or throat.  Care should be taken in examination since rabies may be transmitted by saliva.  Ultimately the animal becomes comatose and dies.

(Information based on material written by Ernest E. Ward, Jr., DVM, and from the American Veterinary Medical Association)