Ask a Vet: What You Should Know About Rabies

Learn about World Rabies Day, the importance of rabies prevention, the vaccine schedule, and more.

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Sep 28, 2023

World Rabies Day was established in 2007 by an international alliance of organizations, including the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

First established in 2007, World Rabies Day is an initiative aimed at raising awareness about rabies—a deadly yet preventable disease that continues to claim the lives of thousands of people and animals every year. The date (September 28th) was chosen to commemorate the death of Louis Pasteur, the renowned French scientist who developed the first rabies vaccine in 1885.

Here’s what you should know:

Often referred to as the "silent killer," rabies is a deadly viral disease that has plagued humanity and animals for centuries. Despite being almost entirely preventable, rabies continues to claim tens of thousands of lives annually, particularly in regions with limited access to healthcare and education.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease caused by the rabies virus, a member of the Lyssavirus genus. It primarily affects mammals, including humans, and is typically transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, most commonly through bites or scratches.

How is Rabies Spread?

The transmission of rabies typically occurs through the following means:

  • Animal Bites: The most common route of transmission is through bites from rabid animals, particularly dogs. However, any mammal, including bats, raccoons, and foxes, can carry and transmit the virus.
  • Scratches and Open Wounds: Rabies can also be transmitted when virus-laden saliva comes into contact with open wounds, scratches, or mucous membranes such as the eyes or mouth.
  • Inhalation: Although rare, rabies can be transmitted through inhalation of aerosolized virus particles in caves inhabited by rabid bats.

What Happens Once Infected?

Once the virus enters the body, it travels along the nerves towards the brain and spinal cord, leading to severe neurological symptoms and ultimately death if left untreated.

How the Rabies Vaccine Works

The rabies vaccine is designed to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against the rabies virus. When an animal is vaccinated, a small and harmless piece of the virus, or a weakened version of it, is introduced into the body. This "antigen" prompts the immune system to produce specific antibodies against the virus without causing the disease itself.

The antibodies remain in the body, ready to fight off the rabies virus if exposed to it in the future. This means that if a person or animal is bitten by a rabid animal after being vaccinated, their immune system can quickly neutralize the virus before it causes illness.

The Rabies Vaccination Schedule for Pets

The rabies vaccination schedule for pets typically follows these guidelines:

  • Initial Vaccination: Puppies and kittens usually receive their first rabies vaccination at around 12 to 16 weeks of age. This initial dose helps kickstart their immunity against the virus.
  • Booster Shots: A follow-up booster shot is administered approximately one year after the initial vaccination. Subsequent booster shots are typically given every one to three years, depending on local regulations and the specific vaccine used.
  • Lifelong Protection: Maintaining regular rabies vaccinations throughout a pet's life is crucial to ensure ongoing protection.