Written by Dr Mirjam van der Wel, Veterinarian, Port Elizabeth
My friend lives in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and she told me her neighbour’s dog got rabies. Can you tell us a bit about rabies and how to keep our animals safe?
Rabies is a viral disease.
The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected animals and they transmit it through biting (and sometimes through a scratch or lick on an open wound). Humans in South Africa usually catch the virus from dog bites.
Any mammal (including us humans) can get the disease, and if left untreated, it always causes death.
That sounds scary! What can we do to protect ourselves and our pets?
Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate!
Many people don’t appear to be aware of the fact that it’s a legal requirement in South Africa to have your domestic cats and dogs vaccinated for rabies.
In a nutshell:
Your pet should be vaccinated for rabies once it has reached three months of age.
The vaccination needs to be repeated no less than 30 days and no more than 12 months later.
And then your pet should receive a booster at least every three years or as recommended by the vaccine manufacturer; but to be on the safe side, a yearly booster is recommended in endemic areas (rabies is endemic in South Africa).
If your pet goes to the vet for its yearly vaccination, rabies is always part of the vaccination cocktail they receive.
Contact your local veterinarian for any information with regards to rabies vaccines for your pets.
But my pet never leaves the yard. How can it get rabies?
Rabies can come into your yard in ways you may least expect. It may be through an infected animal (e.g. cat or mongoose) or, most commonly, through dog arguments at the fence of your property.
Because the virus is carried in saliva, one of these interactions, with spit flying everywhere, can be enough to infect your pet, even if there are no obvious bite-wounds or blood.
The membranes in your pet’s mouth and eyes will absorb the virus from the saliva of the infected animal.
How will I know if my dog has rabies? Can the vet test for it?
There’s no way of knowing if your dog has contracted rabies. Testing for rabies can only be done post mortem (after the pet has died/been put to sleep). Your vet will take a brain sample from your dog/cat and send it to a laboratory to be tested.
The incubation period (that’s the time from when the animal contracted the virus to when it shows symptoms of being ill) is variable, ranging from two weeks to four months (shorter and longer periods have been reported). During the incubation your dog will appear normal. Once your animal starts showing symptoms of being ill, there’s nothing that can save it.
Rabies is a notifiable disease in South Africa, which means your vet has to report any case of (suspected) rabies.
The symptoms of rabies vary from case to case and can be confused with other diseases or poisoning. Note that many of these symptoms don’t immediately include aggression, which is the stereotypical image of rabies-infected animals. Signs include:
Sudden behaviour changes such as shyness or aggression in a friendly dog; wild animals may suddenly be unusually tame
Changes in bark
Unable to swallow/foaming at the mouth
Pica (eating of non-food objects)
What happens if a rabid dog bites a human?
If you get bitten, scratched or licked by a (suspected) rabid dog, clean the wound(s) very thoroughly and seek immediate medical attention. This can literally mean the difference between life and death. Your doctor will advise you about the necessary treatment.
Can people get vaccinated for rabies?
Yes, they can. In countries like South Africa, where rabies is endemic, people with high-risk professions (such as veterinarians, animal health technicians, laboratory staff, etc.) should be vaccinated for rabies.
If you work/help at your local rescue organisation and deal with the animals there: get vaccinated.
If you deal with injured wildlife: get vaccinated.
Don’t wait, vaccinate
Author’s note: Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality – under which Gqeberha falls – is currently experiencing an unprecedented outbreak of rabies. We’re seeing rabies cases in the middle of residential areas, not just out in the bush. It can literally happen anywhere, in all provinces of South Africa.
But it can be prevented. Very simply: vaccinate!
Rabies KILLS. Don’t let your pet become a statistic: VACCINATE.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems like everyone has become a bit of a vaccination expert. You worry about possible vaccination side effects. You like to choose whether you get vaccinated or get a booster or just leave it up to your individual immune systems.
This isn’t true for rabies: the rabies vaccine (for animals and humans) gives an almost 100% protection against the disease. It’s through vaccination of dogs that the WHO (World Health Organisation) hopes to eliminate dog-mediated human rabies by 2030.
There’s no such thing as a mild case of rabies: rabies is always deadly
There’s no such thing as being cured from rabies: rabies always kills
The good news? Rabies can be prevented through vaccination.