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Rabies

Information for Veterinarians

Rabies is a severe zoönotic encephalitis in mammals caused by a Rhabdovirus of the genus Lyssavirus. Clinical signs of rabies differ across species and between individuals of a given species. The first signs of rabies may often be nonspecific and include lethargy, fever, vomiting, and anorexia. Disease progresses within days to manifest as various indicators of encephalopathy, including cerebral dysfunction, cranial nerve dysfunction, ataxia, weakness, paralysis, seizures, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, excessive salivation, abnormal behavior, aggression, and/or self-mutilation. There is no treatment for rabies and death is inevitable. 

The canine rabies variant that is prevalent in Africa and Asia was eradicated from North America in the late 20th century. But strains of rabies virus circulate in North America, principally in certain species of wild mammals. In California, strains of rabies virus are adapted to and maintained in skunks and several species of bats. Any species of wild or domestic mammal can be infected with these rabies viruses. The prevailing route by which dogs, cats, and other domestic animals contract rabies is via contact with rabid wildlife. Because of the endemicity of rabies in California wildlife, the Director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has declared all 58 counties in California (PDF) as rabies areas every year since 1987.

Rabies in California

In California, strains of rabies virus are adapted to and maintained in skunks and several species of bats. The prevailing route by which dogs, cats, and other domestic animals contract rabies is via contact with rabid wildlife.

California regulation (17 California Code of Regulations [CCR] §2606) mandates that all bites from animals susceptible to rabies (mammals) be reported to the local health officer, whether or not the animal is suspected of having rabies. Veterinarians must report confirmed or suspected cases of rabies in animals to the local health department immediately by telephone (17 CCR §2500). Following consultation on a suspect case of rabies, local public health officials can facilitate testing of specimens for rabies in a qualified public health laboratory, as well as provide guidance on risk assessment and management of persons who had contact with the suspected rabid animal. 

Key Points

Vaccination of Dogs

Vaccination of Cats

Rabies Testing

  • Rabies can be confirmed only through examination of post-mortem brain tissue. Rabies confirmatory testing is available only at select county public health laboratories in California. Veterinarians should contact their local health department in advance to receive instructions on collection, packaging, and shipping of specimens for rabies testing.
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