Rabies is a very serious disease, killing more than 55,000 people around the world each year. Every year, more than 15 million people worldwide receive a post-bite vaccination. There are few reported cases of recovery from confirmed infection. If you plan to take your pet abroad then they will need protection against this deadly disease.
What is rabies?
Rabies is an invariably fatal viral infection that is extremely rare in the UK. The virus is passed from animal to animal via the saliva. There are no documented cases of disease being passed from one human to another. The last case of classical rabies caught in the UK was in 1902. No human cases of rabies acquired in the UK from animals other than bats have been reported since 1902. A single case of human rabies acquired from a bat was reported in 2002 in Scotland; this individual had sustained a number of bat bites. Five cases of human rabies associated with animal exposures abroad occurred between 2000 and 2017. Rabies is still a serious problem in most countries of the world with the exception of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Isles, Scandinavia (excluding Denmark), Iceland, the West Indies and Atlantic Islands.
Of note, even if UK cats are known to occasionally prey on bats, there have been no reports of infected cats in the UK. There was however one cat found infected with bat rabies virus in France in 2007.
In Europe and the United States, infection persists mainly in wild animals, for example foxes, bats, racoons and wolves, and humans are infected from contact with such animals. In contrast, in India and other Asian/African countries infection commonly occurs in dogs and cats associated with humans.
What are the signs of rabies?
After an animal has been infected with the virus the signs of rabies usually develop within 2 to 8 weeks. Occasionally the development of signs may be delayed for months or years. The interval between infection and development of signs depends to some extent on the site of the bite. Signs tend to develop more rapidly following bites around the face.
The illness starts gradually with fever, headache and numbness around the wound. As the virus spreads along the nerves to involve the brain, personality changes (eg increased vocalisations, unjustified aggression, restlessness and lethargy) may develop. Two broad types of rabies are described: 'furious' rabies (in 9 out of 10 feline patients) where there is extreme agitation and 'dumb' rabies where the individual is quiet, withdrawn and eventually unrousable. Hydrophobia or intense fear of water has been described in rabies but is difficult to appreciate in cats. Subsequently the illness progresses to spasms, difficulty in swallowing, weakness, seizures and paralysis.
When will my pet be at risk?
Pets living in the UK are not at risk from rabies as they are unlikely ever to come into contact with the an infected animal. Until recently importation of dogs and cats into the British Isles required a period of 6 months quarantine. Rabies vaccination of pets resident in the UK was not allowed. The introduction of the Pet Travel Scheme resulted in relaxation of the requirement for quarantine for pets entering the UK via certain routes from specified destinations. In order for an animal to enter the UK it must have documentation to show that it has been vaccinated (and achieved an adequate level of protection) against rabies at least 21 days prior to that. If you plan to take your pet abroad then you should discuss the risks with your vet and find out if additional vaccinations are required. It can take many months to complete appropriate documentation so make sure you plan well in advance.
How can I protect myself and my pet?
There are few reports of anyone surviving rabies and animals suspected of having rabies are usually euthanised. For this reason prevention of infection is essential. Vaccination is normally highly effective against rabies, however it may not completely eliminate the risk of contracting rabies in certain circumstances. Most pets in the UK have no natural immunity to rabies.
If you are travelling abroad with your pet to a country with a high prevalence of rabies then vaccination is required. A single vaccination is given and then your pet must have a blood test to confirm that they are protected. If you are travelling abroad you should also consider your own health. If you are bitten by an animal abroad always seek local medical advice. Vaccination is an important means of prevention both before possible exposure and after exposure. Post-bite vaccination is the only recognised treatment to prevent the development of the clinical signs and death following infection with the rabies virus and the vaccine should be injected as soon as possible following the bite.
Observe wild animals from a distance and report any wild animal that is acting strangely. Avoid leaving exposed rubbish or pet food outside in countries where rabies infection is frequent in wild animals.
In countries were rabies occurs any domestic animal that has bitten a person is detained and observed for at least 10 days. If the animal has rabies it is likely to show signs within 4 to 7 days. Care should be taken to avoid contact with secretions (saliva, urine) of infected, or potentially infected, individuals.