Rabies: The Bottom Line

By Dr D. Brook /

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that can affected both man and animals. The World Health Organisation estimates that Rabies results in the deaths of as many as 50 000 people worldwide annually, with most of these fatalities in India.

However, Rabies also occurs throughout South Africa and is responsible for up to 30 human deaths a year in this country. Although the disease is more prevalent in Eastern half of South Africa, most notably in Kwazulu-Natal, it does occur sporadically in the Western Cape. Local cases are usually identified in wild animals, most notably the mongoose and bat-eared fox. However, there have been a number of recent cases identified amongst feral cats in the Malmesbury district.

Rabies is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. The saliva contains the virus, which is then transmitted during the bite. Rabies can also be transmitted if the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with an open wound or the mucosal surfaces (such as the inside of the mouth) of the victim.

The virus then moves along the nerves to the brain and the salivary glands. This incubation period is usually a few weeks but may be as long as 4 months depending on the location and severity of the bite. Once the virus reaches the brain, the disease becomes symptomatic and is then almost always fatal, with death occurring less than 10 days after the onset of clinical signs.

Clinical symptoms of the disease manifest as behavioral changes. Rabies is often divided into two syndromes, which are differentiated as follows:

  • Excitive (furious) form- aggression, restless, excitability, light sensitivity, erratic behaviour.
  • Paralytic (dumb) form- paralysis, uncoordinated movements, disorientation, salivation, inability to swallow, dropped jaw, excessive vocalization, excessive tameness in wild animals or affection in pets

Sometimes these forms can overlap or develop at different stages of the disease. It is therefore important to remember that the sudden onset of unusual behaviour by an animal, particularly if it has not been vaccinated, should always alert one to the possibility of Rabies. There are also other diseases which can cause similar symptoms, such as Distemper in the dog. At the moment, we have a severe Distemper epidemic in the Cape. However, if your pet is fully vaccinated, it should be protected against both Distemper and Rabies.

While any animal (including buck, horses, cattle, pigs and sheep) can be infected with rabies, it is most often transmitted by animals capable of passing on the disease through a bite wound, such as the dog, cat, fox or mongoose. Of all the positively identified rabies cases in South Africa, 37% were dogs and 27% were mongooses.

To positively identify a case of rabies, the brain of the affected animal has to be tested. If a wild or stray animal that has bitten someone is suspected of having rabies, it is generally therefore euthanazed to confirm diagnosis as early as possible. The patient can be saved if the disease is treated quickly with vaccinations and/or rabies antibodies before the virus reaches the brain. If a pet shows behavioral changes and is suspected of having Rabies, it may be quarantined for observation for 10-14 days to see if the disease develops.

Luckily there is a highly effective and inexpensive vaccine that will protect your pet against Rabies and ensure that in the unlikely event that it may come into contact with a rabid animal, your family will be safe too. Legislation requires that all dogs and cats in South Africa be vaccinated twice in their first year of life and then once every three years thereafter.

Should your pet be bitten by a wild animal or should you encounter a stray or wild animal which bites you and appears to be behaving in an abnormal manner, you should take the following steps:

  1. If the animal is dead or if you are able to SAFELY secure it in a container for transport without further injury to yourself, please bring it to one of our branches as soon as possible. We will examine it and if necessary take steps to have it tested by the State Veterinarian at no charge to yourself.
  2. Human anti-rabies vaccines are readily available at doctor’s rooms or pharmacy clinics. If you work frequently with stray pets or animals without a known vaccine history, for example Animal welfare volunteer, then you should preferably be vaccinated against Rabies as a preventative measure. Otherwise, if you are bitten by an animal with no vaccination history, it is safer to be vaccinated yourself as soon as possible after the bite.

In summary, although Rabies is a rare disease in the Western Cape, it does occur here. Always keep your pets’ vaccines up to date, be cautious when dealing with stray or wild animals that appear to be acting abnormally and have yourself vaccinated as a precaution if you are bitten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *