Rabies in Dogs - Everything You Need to Know About the Disease

07.10.2022 - Reading time: 4 minutes

Ein Hund sabbert.

Rabies has almost the same fear-generating impact as the plague in humans. And this is perfectly understandable, as a dog or a human with rabies is barely curable. Until recently, dogs in Germany had to be vaccinated against rabies every year. This position has changed considerably over the last few years, so that many dog owners are now unsure. You ask yourself: Should I continue to have my dog vaccinated against rabies? Here you will learn everything you need to know about the disease.


What is rabies?

Rabies is the name of a disease which is caused by rabies viruses of the lyssavirus genus which are transmitted by saliva or mucous membranes and blood. All mammals, particular carnivorous animals such as dogs, cats, foxes, wolves, raccoons, ferrets and bats, and also humans can be infected with rabies viruses. Infection usually occurs as a result of bites or scratches.

Rabies is a fatal disease which always ends in the death of unvaccinated dogs.

Dogs in Europe are mostly infected with the viruses by foxes or by each other. The incubation period after a bite is two to ten weeks. This very much depends on how close the wound is to the brain. After the onset of rabies, death usually occurs within a period of between one day and one week.

Rabies viruses spread very quickly through the bloodstream and somewhat more slowly through the nerves before reaching their destination, the brain.

Germany has been officially regarded as “free of rabies” since 2008, which does not mean that dogs and humans cannot be infected by sick dogs and cats which are imported into Germany.

For dogs, there is no proven antidote for rabies. Only prevention through vaccination can protect the lives of dogs.

Rabies in dogs: Symptoms

The symptoms of rabies in dogs result from damage to the central nervous system (CNS) as a result of viruses. The closer the site of infection is to the brain, the more quickly viruses are able to attack the CNS. This is also true when the route of infection is via the bloodstream. As in humans, the symptoms of rabies in dogs occur as a result of acute and massive inflammation of the brain. The disease usually develops in three stages, with the owner of the dog often not being aware of the first phase.

3 phases

First phase

  • Fever
  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • possibly cough
  • individual personality changes


Second phase

  • Increased personality changes and variations in mood
  • Sensitivity to light and air or wind sounds
  • The sight of water triggers abnormal behaviour
  • Nervousness, timidity and withdrawal in the “silent rage” variety
  • Episodes of aggression, persistent barking for no reason and increasing restlessness in the “raging anger” variety
  • Paralysis, particularly of the hind legs
  • Muscle twitches
  • Salivation, protruding tongue, lockjaw (open)


Third phase

  • Seizures
  • Final paralysis
  • Coma and death as a result of respiratory paralysis (asphyxiation)

Rabies in dogs: Treatment

Rabies is a notifiable disease and it is subject to State control. It must be reported to the relevant medical officer and he/she decides on the course of further action. If your dog is suspected to have come into contact with a wild animal or to have certain symptoms of rabies infection, the medical officer will arrange for euthanisation without treatment.

Only dogs which can be shown to be fully vaccinated will not be killed; they will continue to be monitored, where relevant. The medical officer will also decide on the measures which are to be taken in this case as well.

A well-founded suspicion of infection with rabies may also result in a vaccinated dog being placed in quarantine for three to six months.

How is rabies diagnosed in a dog?

Rabies cannot be diagnosed with 100 per cent certainty in living animals. With the methods which are currently available, the pathogens which cause rabies can only be detected by examining an animal’s cerebral matter.

Rabies in dogs: Treatment?

Unfortunately, your veterinarian’s hands are tied; the treatment of dogs which are suspected to have been infected with rabies is prohibited by law. This applies even if your four-legged friend does not have any symptoms of the disease.

In other words, it is the case that, even if treatment of your possibly infected dog would theoretically be possible with the treatment options which exist for humans, this would not be permissible. At any rate, these measures would be very limited and would only be successful if the infected patient was given an antiserum and concomitant vaccinations within a few hours.

If the first symptoms of possible rabies occur in your unvaccinated dog, infection with rabies will be assumed and your animal will be killed.

Vaccination against rabies

On account of the legal requirements on the one hand and the lack of possible treatments on the other, vaccination against rabies in dogs continues to be one of the most urgently recommended vaccinations (core vaccinations) for dogs in Germany. Have your puppy vaccinated against rabies in the 12th week of life and ensure that he has his/her basic injections. Inform yourself about the vaccination guidelines and the vaccination regimen in Maxizoo’s Vaccinating dogs guide.

With this measure, you will protect your dog and you will make a significant contribution towards ensuring that the pathogenic agents which cause rabies are kept to a minimum in the whole of the animal population.


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