When you picture a rabid dog, you may imagine a canine foaming at the mouth and becoming aggressive. But those are only two of the symptoms of rabies, and they typically occur only after the dog displays subtler symptoms, says Susan Nelson, DVM, associate clinical professor at the Veterinary Health Center at Kansas State University.

Nelson says dogs and cats with rabies typically first display symptoms that could be mistaken for other illnesses, such as:

  • vomiting
  • lethargy
  • decreased appetite
  • biting or scratching at the site of the bite

Nelson says rabies symptoms will turn neurological within days and could include:

  • weakness
  • unsteady gait
  • seizures or tremors
  • difficulty swallowing
  • excessive drooling
  • difficulty breathing

Animals may not always display aggression, says Nelson. “There are two forms [of rabies]: The dumb-subdued in which the animal just becomes very lethargic and non-responsive, and the furious-aggressive form, where the pet may chase other animals and is prone to unprovoked biting.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), cats are more prone to becoming aggressive, while dogs are more likely to be lethargic and non-responsive. Sadly, once symptoms appear, the animal will likely die within 10 days.

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Your pet’s rabies risk

Thanks to the rabies vaccine , which is required in the United States for domestic dogs and cats, the canine variant of rabies has been eliminated from the United States, says Nelson. But that doesn’t mean your pets cannot get rabies from wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes.

Rabies is transmitted through saliva, typically through a bite, but can also be transmitted if saliva from an infected animal comes in contact with any open wound or mucous membranes (eyes, nose or mouth).

Cats are more likely to contract rabies because they are more prone to wandering outside unsupervised and are less likely to be vaccinated against the disease . “In 2008, the number of rabies-infected cats was almost four times the number of rabies-infected dogs,” writes the AVMA.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that unvaccinated dogs, cats and ferrets thought to have been infected with rabies be euthanized. However, if owners do not want to do this and their jurisdiction will allow it, they are required to keep their pet in a state-approved isolation facility (typically at their expense) for six months. Pets that have expired vaccinations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, according to the CDC.

Pets that have been exposed to rabies and are up-to-date on vaccines must have the wound cleaned immediately and obtain another vaccine as soon as possible, as well as be put under observation for 45 days. Following this protocol ensures a nearly 100 percent survival rate in previously vaccinated pets, the AVMA says.

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Rabies in humans

Humans can also contract rabies, either from rabies-infected wild mammals or rabies-infected domestic pets. Most cases of rabies in humans in the United States come from bats, the AVMA says. Humans can contract rabies in the same ways as animals can.

According to the CDC, symptoms in humans include general flu-like symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • weakness or discomfort
  • headache
  • tingling sensation at the bite area

After a few days, the symptoms will progress to:

  • cerebral dysfunction
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • irritation
  • delirium
  • abnormal behavior
  • hallucinations
  • insomnia

Once symptoms appear in humans, rabies is almost always fatal. If you think you may have been exposed to rabies, seek medical help immediately.

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How to prevent rabies

Vaccination programs in domestic animals have been very effective in reducing and eliminating some variants of rabies in the United States and other developed countries. In 2008, 93 percent of rabies cases reported to the CDC were in wild animals and only 7 percent were in domestic animals.

More than 55,000 people still die from rabies each year, mostly in Asia (80 percent of deaths) and Africa, where rabid dogs are very common. Very few deaths are reported in the United States.

It’s very important to make sure your pets are up to date on their rabies vaccinations, which is required every one to three years, depending on the vaccine, according to the AVMA.

While severe adverse reactions to vaccines do occur, Nelson says the benefits to you, your family, your pets and the public good far outweigh the risks. “I’ve been practicing since 1989 and I can count on one hand, or less, the number of severe adverse vaccine reactions I’ve seen,” Nelson says.

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Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell lives in a cabin in the woods with her husband of 30 years and their five recycled (rescued) dogs. Her book, “Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480 Square Feet With Six Dogs, a Husband And One Remote…Plus More Stories of How You Can Too,” will be released by Readers Digest Books in 2016.