The rabies virus is infamous across the world for its ability to turn affectionate pets into highly aggressive animals.

Thankfully, the UK was declared rabies free more than 90 years ago – and dogs, cats and ferrets must now be vaccinated against the disease before travelling abroad – but the infection persists in 150 countries across the world.

Here, we have tried to answer all of the questions British pet owners may have about rabies.

An image of a dog being aggressive and snarling for Vets Now article on rabies
Dogs infected with the rabies virus often show aggression

1. What is rabies and where is it common?

Rabies is an infectious viral disease that affects the nervous system of warm-blooded animals. It’s usually spread through saliva and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Dogs are the biggest carriers of the disease worldwide.

There are two forms of rabies – furious and paralytic. Furious is the classic “mad-dog syndrome” when animals lose their fear and lash out indiscriminately. Dogs with the paralytic version are likely to drool profusely but are much more docile.

Across the world, almost 60,000 people die of rabies every year. Two in five of these victims are children, and most deaths occur in south and south-east Asia. It’s particularly rife in India. Almost all of these deaths are the result of being bitten by an infected domestic dog.

2. I'm taking my pet on holiday to a country with rabies, what should I do?

You must make sure your dog is vaccinated against rabies at least 21 days before travelling to another EU country or a country the UK has a pet travel scheme agreement with. If you’re going to a country not listed, you must also obtain a blood sample from your dog 30 days after they’ve had the rabies vaccination, and then wait another three months before travelling.

Holidaymakers planning to travel to countries with rabies are also advised to seek advice as to whether a rabies vaccine is recommended before travel. Once on holiday, they should avoid all contact with wild and domestic animals.

3. Is rabies only transmitted through bites?

No. That’s a common misconception. People can get rabies from a scratch from an infected animal or even a lick on broken skin.

4. Can a vaccinated dog get rabies?

In rare cases, vaccinated dogs can get rabies. As a result of this, vets treating dogs or cats for the signs of rabies are advised not to take their vaccination history into account when making a diagnosis.

5. Is rabies always fatal?

People who are exposed to rabies can survive if they receive urgent treatment. Around 15 million people a year are treated after suspected exposure but before clinical signs appear. This is estimated to prevent 327,000 rabies deaths. In animals, the prognosis is also very poor if the disease is not treated soon after symptoms have begun.

6. Is rabies found in the UK?

Rabies is very rare in the UK. Since 2000, only four deaths have been recorded and all of the victims had been bitten by dogs abroad.

In 2002, a bat-handler from Scotland died after contracting a rabies-like virus. At the time it was believed to be the first indigenous case of the disease in a century. Before that, the last death from indigenous rabies was in 1902 while the last case of someone being infected by an animal while in the UK was in 1922.

Pet owners who want to bring dogs, cats or ferrets into the UK must have them vaccinated against rabies. If they cannot prove they have done this their pet must stay in quarantine for six months.

Image of an angry cat hissing for Vtes Now article on rabies
Dogs are responsible for 96% of human rabies cases, but there are also reports of human rabies due to bites of cats

7. What are the symptoms of rabies in pets?

A pet who has contracted the virus may show a sudden change in behaviours such as restlessness and apprehension. They may also become aggressive and suffer from unexplained paralysis. It’s not uncommon for friendly dogs to become irritable, or energetic pets to become more docile. Dogs may also bite or snap quickly, attacking animals, humans and even inanimate objects.

As the virus spreads, it’s likely they’ll become sensitive to light, touch, and sound. They might even start eating unusual things and hiding in dark places. Once the virus reaches the brain, it then will move to the saliva.

8. How long after infection do signs of rabies show?

In animals, it can take anything from two weeks to several months while in human symptoms usually develop between three and eight weeks. In some rare cases, though, symptoms have appeared as early as nine days and taken as long as seven years after exposure. The time usually depends on the severity and location of the bite and the amount and strain of the virus transmitted.

9. Is there a cure for rabies?

There’s no cure for rabies in either humans or animals. Once symptoms start to show in humans death is almost inevitable. There have been cases of dogs surviving the infection – but these are rare.

Image of Vets Now vets operating on a dog
Once symptoms reveal themselves, rabies is often fatal

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10. What can pet owners do to prevent rabies?

In the UK, rabies is almost non-existent, so there’s little chance of your pet getting the disease. But if you’re travelling overseas, or are bringing a dog or cat to the UK from another country, you must, by law, get them vaccinated against rabies.

In countries where rabies is present, it’s also worth taking some precautionary measures to reduce the risk of exposure. These include walking your dog on a leash and always supervising them when they’re outdoors.

Never approach animals you think may be rabid and never touch dead animals that may have had the disease.

11. Can rabies be passed between people?

Thankfully, there are no documented cases, although people who have come into contact with a rabies sufferer are typically offered immunisation from the disease as a precaution.

12. Can eating meat or drinking milk from an infected animal transmit rabies?

While it’s not advised, there is no evidence to suggest that drinking milk from rabid animals transmits the disease. This is the same for cooked meat. However, eating raw meat from an infected animal may pose a health risk.

13. What should I do if I think my pet has come into contact with a rabid animal?

If you suspect your pet has come into contact with a rabid animal, you should report it to your local animal health and welfare service and contact your vet straight away.