The British Isles has been free of rabies for many decades. The last case of classical rabies caught in the UK was in 1902 and since 1946 there have only been 22 deaths in the UK from rabies acquired abroad.
Rabies is still a serious problem in most countries around the world with the exception of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Isles, Scandinavia (excluding Denmark), Iceland, the West Indies and Atlantic Islands. In Europe and the United States, infection persists mainly in wild animals, for example foxes, bats, racoons and wolves. Humans are infected from contact with such animals. In contrast, in India and other Asian/African countries infection commonly occurs in dogs associated with humans.
All rabies susceptible animals entering the UK are required to spend six months in quarantine, unless of course, they arrive in this country under the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS).
In most countries rabies is, in fact, a notifiable disease and suspect animals must be kept in isolation.
Which dogs are at risk of rabies?
Rabies is a zoonotic viral disease which is almost always fatal and can infect all mammals, including humans. Dogs are the main vector for human rabies.
How is rabies spread?
Rabies is transmitted by the bite of an infected animal with high virus concentrations in its saliva.
What is the cause of rabies?
Rabies virus is a member of the Rhabdoviridae - an RNA virus. Both wild and domesticated animals can act as a natural reservoir for the disease, with human infection normally transmitted from dogs, cats, rodents and wild animals like bats, foxes and skunks.
What are the signs and symptoms of rabies?
The incubation period of rabies varies from nine days to more than a year. The delay in some cases is because the virus has to migrate from the site of initial entry into the body to the spinal cord or the brain.
The average length of time for clinical signs to appear is four weeks after infection and can be seen in three phases:
Phase one: Local irritation of the entry site, followed by fever, mild changes in demeanour, behaviour and temperament. Pupils will be dilated and eye reflexes slow. The sound of an animal's bark or meow may alter.
Phase two: Aggression, lack of co-ordination, disorientation, seizures and fits, increased salivation and photophobia.
Phase three: Paralysis, excessive salivation, respiratory failure, coma and then death.
How can I protect my dog from rabies?
The requirements of the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) are very strict regarding rabies boosters and if a pet owner wishes to keep their animal registered, its vaccinations must be kept up-to-date.
Three of the four rabies vaccines in the UK have a duration of immunity of three years for dogs and cats. One is registered for ferrets. It is important to consider that if a pet is regarded as resident in a particular country being visited that the rules governing rabies vaccination in the country may be different from those needed for travel. Check with a veterinary surgeon in the individual county visited regarding their specific requirements should a stay longer than a short holiday be contemplated.
For copies of leaflets and further guidance on taking pets abroad, please contact the Pet Travel Scheme Helpline on 0870 241 1710, or your local vet.