What is rabies?

Rabies is a virus that can affect all mammals including humans and dogs. It’s in the saliva of infected animals and spread mainly by bites and scratches. After a bite or scratch, the rabies virus travels to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and symptoms develop.

There are two forms of the disease – ‘furious rabies’ (what we all probably think of as rabies, especially if we’ve ever been traumatised by the Disney film ‘Old Yeller’!) and ‘paralytic rabies’. Both are fatal, and there’s no effective treatment for either, in humans or animals, once symptoms develop. 

Do we have rabies in the UK?

The UK eradicated rabies from all animals (except bats) in the 1920s and has been rabies free ever since. We work hard to keep it that way. Many other countries have also successfully eradicated the virus but it is still common in much of the world. Particularly Africa and Asia, killing many thousands of people every single year. As a result, there is a risk of rabies arriving in the UK via the importation of infected animals. 

How can rabies be prevented?

Humans and animals can be vaccinated against rabies. You may have been advised to have a rabies vaccination before taking a holiday in a high risk country. The World Health Organisation is working to eradicate rabies globally through vaccination programmes.

After a bite or scratch from an infected animal post-exposure prophylaxis can be given to humans. It takes time for the virus to get to the central nervous system, so there’s a window before symptoms occur where this is effective at preventing the disease developing. Post-exposure prophylaxis consists of a course of the rabies vaccine, and often rabies anti-serum.

Why are dogs such a concern? 

In Africa and Asia nearly every human infection is from a bite or a scratch from a dog. A dog with rabies is not in control of its behaviour and is likely to attack people and other animals, spreading the virus. Nearly half of those bitten by infected animals are children as they’re more likely to play with animals and not comprehend that the animal is rabid. 

As the risk of human infection from dogs is so high the UK has controls in place to minimise the risk of infected dogs entering the country. Dogs (also cats and ferrets) must be vaccinated against rabies by a vet. They must also be microchipped, and the microchip number recorded along with the vaccine details, to avoid any mix ups in animal identification. Pups must be at least 12 weeks old at the time of vaccination.

If travelling from a country where the risk of rabies is low, the dog can then enter the UK, with appropriate paperwork, from three weeks after vaccination. Dogs coming from countries where rabies is present must also have a blood test 30 days after vaccination. This is to check that the vaccination has worked and then wait another three months before travelling.

We have these controls in place – so why worry?

Controls are not failsafe. We know that not all dogs respond fully to their rabies vaccination. If they’re travelling from a country where blood testing is not required there’s no way of knowing which dogs are protected. 

The system is also unfortunately open to abuse by dealers importing puppies into the UK – demand for puppies has skyrocketed during lockdown and it’s a lucrative business. Dates of births are faked so puppies can be vaccinated before they’re 12 weeks old – too young to respond properly to the vaccine. Dates of vaccination can be faked too to circumvent the 21 day wait, meaning the pup may not have had time to develop protection.

Is it difficult to diagnose?

Puppies without rabies protection are arriving in the UK and maybe carrying rabies, even if they appear healthy. Symptoms don’t appear immediately after infection. Their unsuspecting new owners may not even be aware the puppy isn’t born and bred in the UK, so rabies isn’t something they (or their vet) would be thinking about if the puppy became unwell. 

In the early stages of the disease rabies can easily be mistaken for other conditions. Imagine your new puppy seems a bit quiet, or maybe a bit drooly. You may not think much of it. Your puppy continues to play with the children, inadvertently scratching or biting them in the process. Then, a few days later, the puppy develops full-blown symptoms of rabies and has already infected its human family and other pets it’s met.  You can see how the disease would rapidly spread causing an outbreak. 

We could vaccinate everybody, and every dog, in the face of an outbreak, but we know from Covid that mass vaccination programmes take a long time. Post exposure prophylaxis is available, but there wouldn’t be enough for everybody. If rabies ended up in wild animals following a bite from an infected dog control would be near impossible – foxes are the main source of infection in Europe. 

What can I do?

If you’re getting a new pup make sure you know where they’re coming from – there’s excellent advice on the PDSA website. If adopting a dog from another country, try to check the credentials of the charity (some are not charities at all).  Any concerns about your puppy’s health, or its documentation seems a bit fishy, always ask your vet for advice.

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