Rabies Testing: Things Better Left Unsaid

Avoid having your pet beheaded

December 3, 2012 (published)

There are lots of compelling reasons to vaccinate your pets on a schedule developed by you and your veterinarian, but perhaps the most compelling-est is to avoid having your pet beheaded. You read that right – beheaded, just like Anne Boleyn.

For animals that have bitten a person, a 10-day quarantine is the usual way of determining if they have rabies. Quarantine is not all that bad; it’s kind of like an all-inclusive resort weekend, except instead of tuxedoed waiters and umbrella drinks it’s dry kibble and an animal control cage. Actually, that sounds more like prison than a sunny Bahamas resort, more three hots and a cot than all-you-can-eat steamed shrimp. The logic behind the 10-day stretch that you pay for is that very, very few animals that are rabid and shedding virus in saliva (more on this below) will live past 10 days. If your dog bites you or someone else and survives for longer than 10 days, the chances that your dog was rabid at the time of the bite are essentially nil.

But before that, it would probably behoove me to spend a few words talking about why we bother vaccinating against rabies in the first place. Rabies is a viral neurological disease that any mammal can pass on to any other mammal through an infected bite or contact with saliva that contains wee little rabies particles called virions. Yes, technically, you could contract rabies from a narwhal or a wallaby, but it prefers to spend its time inside more commonly found hosts, mammals like foxes, skunks and bats. Those three species are the canonical wild mammals that rabies uses as hosts – the Groucho, Harpo and Chico of the rabies world. Every once in a while (and it varies by region) a new critter will emerge for a while as a carrier of the dread pirate rabies, like Zeppo sneaking into a Marx Brothers movie. Dogs, cats, cows, horses, llamas and all of our domestic animals can contract rabies and spread it to us.

The rabies virus is a cagey little bit of fluff. Once an animal is bitten, the virus travels up the nerves in an all-roads-lead-to-Rome fashion until it reaches the central nervous system and the brain. Once there, it sets up shop in the very part of the brain that controls emotion and pushes the shiny red ‘rage’ button; animals become aggressive and more likely to bite. The virus also starts to reproduce in the salivary glands, which produces the classic ‘foaming at the mouth’ vision of a rabid dog. What better way to pass on the disease to a new host than to ramp up the transmission machinery (saliva) and make the carrier prone to injecting it into the next unlucky victim through a bite? Rabid animals have literally had their brains taken over by the virus, becoming a raging guided missile of viral transmission. No wonder most zombie movies and stories use a genetically modified rabies virus as a plot point.

The other part of the whole rabies thing is…less savory.

Actually, it is downright horrifying and fairly disgusting, so let’s give in to our prurient side and dive right in.

Since our domestic species tend to canoodle with wild animals from time to time, we can and do get rabies. Our public health folks think of vaccinating our dogs and cats against rabies more of a way of protecting us humans than of protecting the pets.

Sure, you don’t want your pet to get rabies, but the public health folks are more concerned with making sure your dog doesn’t catch rabies from a fox who was in the back yard and then passing it on to every kid in the neighborhood. Thus, the rabies vaccine was invented and has become the only legally mandated vaccine for pets; other vaccines, for diseases like parvo and distemper, are medically necessary for the pets but don’t play a role in public health.

So…10-day quarantine if your dog bites someone. Seems simple enough, eh? But what if your dog was to die or be euthanized during that 10-day period? What if your dog bit you because you picked her up after she was injured when hit by a car? It may seem a bit far-fetched, but this scenario happens all the time in veterinary ERs. Animals are far more prone to bite when they are injured, sick, or handled by strangers than when on their home turf, and so veterinarians and staff face this scenario frequently. (One of the things in small print on the forms that veterinarians ask owners to sign before euthanizing pets is for the owner to ascertain that their pet has not bitten anyone in the past 14 days.)

When we euthanize a pet that has bitten someone recently, there is obviously no chance to see if the pet would survive the 10-day period. Using the example of the injured dog that has bitten her owner, if the dog has a broken back and the owner elects to euthanize, we don’t know if the dog was rabid when she bit her owner. Actually, we can find out, and here is where things turn from sad to outright gruesome. What is to follow can only be described as unsettling and potentially offensive, so please read on with caution.

The only definitive way to determine if an animal had rabies is to examine the brain. This is impossible to do while alive. Blood and other ante-mortem (before death) tests are not reliable enough when a human life is on the line. This means cutting the head off and submitting it to a state lab for rabies testing. This testing is not optional if your pet is not currently vaccinated for rabies. If an unvaccinated animal bites a human and then either dies or is euthanized, the head must, by law, be submitted for testing. This all seems quite matter-of-fact and clinical when writing about it for a blog post, but for the veterinarian in charge and the pet owner, it really gets uncomfortable and downright ugly – trust me.

There is some wiggle room in this scenario ‒ in certain jurisdictions, and with certain animal control agencies ‒ to avoid testing the brain if two criteria are met:

  1. The pet has a current vaccine for rabies: first one given after 6 months of age, next one a year after that, then every 3 years.
  2. The bite was a "provoked bite," delivered because the animal had a logical reason to do so, such as has a broken back. An unprovoked bite is what rabid animals are likely to do: just come up and chomp for no reason at all.

I am not saying that you can avoid testing in all cases if your pet is current on rabies vaccination, but I have been able to get a sympathetic animal control officer to relent when I have described the situation to them and pleaded on the owner’s behalf. Not every time, mind you. Some officials are by-the-book sticklers and will demand that the pet’s head be submitted regardless of vaccine status or the situation surrounding the bite.

Imagine for a moment that your dog was just hit by a car and is lying injured in the street. It is the usual first instinct of loving owners to rush to the dog and pick her up. If your pet bites you, and you later determine that euthanasia is the most humane option, most veterinarians will be forced to submit the head for rabies testing if your dog is unvaccinated for rabies. In the midst of the pain and shock at seeing your pet injured, suffering a bite yourself and making the agonizing decision to euthanize the pet, you now face the horrifying knowledge that she has to have her head cut off. It is almost too much to take, and even though every word of this is true, I feel like I am betraying a sacred trust in exposing this fact. I admit that several times over the course of my career, I have used the euphemism “take a sample of nerve tissue” for owners who I didn’t think could cope with the actual truth of what would happen to the remains.

The job of removing the pet’s head is unpleasant and is physically and emotionally draining. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, heads like to stay on and removing one is hard work. The task is so terrible that it is often passed on to junior staff members like interns. I have had to do it many times, and I detest it each time. Veterinarians are trained to heal animals, not cut their heads off. It seems like the ultimate failure.

Domestic animals don’t often test positive for rabies, but when they do the consequences are dire. The situations I outline here don’t come up often, but are seen often enough that it is worth making sure that your pet stays current on rabies vaccines. Protecting your pet’s dignity after death is one more thing in the long list of reasons why a current rabies vaccination is important.

Editor's note: A bobcat that attacked two people in their garage tested positive for rabies.


Nancy M.
November 26, 2022

We made the toughest decision of our lives to put our boy DJ down today. As we took him to the vet and my husband went to get him out of the truck, mind you our boy was in a lot of pain due to his bad hips and not eating for a few days. Our boy bite my husband (owner) as soon as it happened with NO sympathy they told us they had to report it and take his brain for testing. Our dog gets his shots when needed never missed one! He is up to date on ALL vaccines! What was meant fo be a sad day to just mourn our boy it turned out to just be hurt and major anger inside! I feel like we are being punished! Why I don’t know? This law needs to be put on the back burner for all animals who are fully vaccinated!!!!! Our boy does not deserve this. I feel like we are just going to get back nothing now. And on top of it all THIS IS AT OUR EXPENSE! I am disgusted and mortified that this such thing exists! Once I get our boy back in our home I will be fighting back! also, 10 day quarantine was no option cause the way he was he would have just died at home suffering from the pain.  He hasn’t eaten or gotten up. We were so broken to him like that. They put us in between a rock and a hard place and this was not fair at all. My heart goes out to all dog owners who have to go through this. ๐Ÿ’”

April 6, 2022

Had two Beagles. . . Just lost one to age and renal failure. . . our neighbors, have a giant 18 month old shepherd. . . Bit a neighbor and is now under quarantine. .. he he survives. . 6 days. Fingers crossed!

September 9, 2021

This article made me tear up. I took my cat to the vet recently because I could see she wasn’t doing well. Her symptoms told me her kidneys were ultimately failing. While at the vet she bit me hard and needless to say, I ended up in the hospital with cellulitis on my dominant hand. She was 19 years old and an indoor cat all her life but because I chose to euthanize her and she had bitten me within 10 days of euthanization, they had to test her brain for rabies. My first thought was they were going to have to shave her little head but after reading this article, it made me sick to know how the procedure is actually performed. I have chosen to keep her ashes after cremation but now I know I won’t be getting all of her back. I do not believe she had rabies and I am still recovering from the bite which I know will take time.

Graham Kraykar
February 28, 2021

Thanks for the informative article.  Good writing style too.  I love dogs but am not a pet owner at present.  Why do so many pet owners seem to care more about their animals than people?  Lack of ability to maintain human relationships?

July 10, 2012

This is very tru and just happened to be and our beloved dog after 10 years. Our dog ruptured a disk and became paralyzed. He lost his ability to releave himself. I was putting a diaper on him and he bit me pretty good. Because his Rabies vacation was 1 month over due and we made the decision to end his suffering. By law our vet had to send his head off for testing. Our dog was never an outside dog or left our site in 10 years. This was awful and we could only cope with knowing that he was no longer suffering and what happened to his body after death really didn’t matter as his soul was in heaven now. I was so mad when animal control called me and said he was negative for rabies. We all knew this and was a nightmare. Our dog was suffering terrible and the vet then said he couldn’t put him down because he we had to get permission from the law. At this point I was forced of the possibility of having to shoot my own child in order to end his suffering. Please don’t let this happen to you and get your dogs rabies vaccines on time. I only hope our beloved Roscoe knows how much we loved him. 

Chelsea Ryback
February 1, 2020

Say I euthanized my dog at home... what would be he window of time for me to get her head cut off and tested for rabies?

July 21, 2019

Thank you for an informative article. The reply from Teri Ann Oursler, DVM in the comments caught my eye. Do Dr. Ousler's comments imply that even a cat who had been overdue by 2 years (sadly, we should have gotten his shot up to date in 2017 but failed) has some level of protection in his body, as he had been religiously vaccinated for rabies his whole life before this unfortunate lapse? Almost a month ago our cat was bitten by an unknown animal while outside. The bite was discovered while he was sedated during a dental cleaning. The vet who discovered the bite promptly administered the rabies vaccine once I'd told her his shots were not up to date. Though, she noted that the shot could not protect him from the bite if it had indeed been from a rabid animal. Thus, our cat is now quarantined for the next 6 months at our vet's office, per the county's recommendation. It's been almost a month since he was bitten on his left flank and he has not exhibited any signs of rabies. Is it at all possible that his lifetime of previous rabies vaccinations could have protected him? Also, our county says that an animal suspected of rabies contact should be quarantined for 6 months, BUT, I read online that it could take as much as 1 year for rabies to manifest in cats. Would it be best to quarantine him for an entire year before bringing him back home with our young children? What a sad result from our irresponsibility! Poor kitty, but we continue to hope for the best. Your reply/insights would be much appreciated!

Shannon Sharp
May 5, 2019

My cat; Sunny, was killed in my yard by a dog that had broken off his leash. I called Animal Control & they came & took Sunny away. When She was returned to me, to be buried, i was told to NOT  look in the bag....she had been beheaded! The whole experience was absolutely horrific!

April 29, 2019

Thank you for your honesty in addressing the rabies issue.  The truth can hurt but it is better than believing a lie.

March 20, 2019

Our cat had his shots up to date and we warned the vet tech our cat was a biter. As the tech tried laying our cat on his side while he was in kidney failure he bit her. The bit just nicked her skin. The emergency clinic called animal control and he was put in a home 14  quarantine. Unfortunately our cat wasn't going to make it so we had to put him down. It doesn't matter if the shots are up to date they take the head no matter what if they bite. I'm disgusted on how they can do this to a family who took such good care of there pet. How can an inside cat up dated on his shots have rabies. Not likely at all.

Teri Ann Oursler, DVM
February 25, 2019

Melissa, The reason for the 10-day quarantine is so that we know your cat was not shedding rabies virus at the time of your bite.  If he had been shedding virus, he would have died within that 10-day period.  As he is still alive, he cannot have been shedding rabies at the time of your bite. As for the possibility of your cat continuing to harbor rabies virus, I would say no with 99.9% certainty.  He was only late for his vaccine, as opposed to having never been vaccinated. And now he has had his rabies vaccination boosted. I would not worry.

February 23, 2019

Thank you so much for this informative site. I was bitten by my cat 15 days ago when I got between him and a friend’s dog. My cat is mostly indoors but does get out every now and then. Unfortunately, my cat wasn’t up-to-date on his rabies vaccination. When I went into the er for the bite, my doctor said it was unlikely my cat had rabies but I needed to put him on a 10 day quarantine. I did that, and at the end of the 10 days took him in to the vet for an exam. The vet said it looked like he definitely didn’t have rabies when he went in. He was vaccinated at his appointment and I was sent home, but I am still really nervous. I saw online that cats can sometimes have rabies for up to a year before showing signs, and some cats don’t show ANY signs at all. Am I just being overly cautious to still be concerned about him having rabies and being contagious? Thanks!

February 11, 2019

I have a vet appointment with the veterinarian today for my 11yr old dog. I recently moved to another state and intended on getting my dog the rabies vaccine in September when I left. It was a walk in clinic that only charged 15$ for the vaccination but I got there right before they closed and they were packed for some reason. I was to leave the state that day. We started the trek and haven't got the rabies vaccine yet it's Feb now.  My dog is very I'll and has been vomiting. There was also a little bit of foam on the couch yesterday were her mouth was when she was laying down. Yesterday she started walking funny. I'm freaking out because I have two boys. She hasn't bit anyone. She's very lethargic. The boys have touched her since she has been ill, her mouth too. I know if she has it that if we've gotten it we need the necessary shots asap. Before we moved we lived in a house that there was a fence missing on both sides with all kinds of animals around, deer, skunks, possum, stay cats and dogs.. There was a big empty stretch of land nearby. She had gotten out a couple of times at night we got her back to the house. I don't have much money and I'm not sure what to do. I have enough for the appointment but that's about it. Should I request that she get tested? I know it's extreme but my boys are more important.

February 3, 2019

very recently (little over a week ago) i had my first and hopefully last experience with rabies. my poor little foster kitten had it. the vet had said his injuries were not consistent with an animal attack (front right leg and back left leg were injured and they said an animal would've bitten on the same side not both... plus his mom and brother had no injuries on them). unfortunately this meant we didn't keep him on a 4 month quarantine as is the law in my state, we only did a 2 week one that we usually do for every foster to prevent my own cats getting something. we had him a month. then he had his back leg amputated due to a bone infection and the next day it was so sudden that his symptoms appeared. he was gone within maybe 6 hours after first symptoms (aggression and acting blind and not eating. we assumed he was in pain). 2 days later, we had confirmation he had rabies. i knew how they test for it before this article but it still broke my heart knowing i wouldnt be able to bury him like we always do our fosters who pass away (we've had some really young ones get fading kitten syndrome. never anything like this though).. i did get his foot prints but i wish they had a better technique for testing where we can get the body back. the health department wouldn't even allow us to do cremation and keep his ashes. im not sure how common that is but i hate it. the vet was kind enough to get us his foot prints before he was sent off but my heart is still aching for my boy. now im worrying my own cat may have been exposed, and i know i and my mom both were (still going through PEP). this is a horrible disease.

January 23, 2019

@emily, you said the pup was sent for testing? What were the results?

November 30, 2018

We have a litter of Labrador retriever puppies, 11 weeks old. Over the past few days, one of the pups was acting more lethargic than normal and then yesterday acted very disoriented, started running into things, and began drooling excessively. We suspected that he had perhaps gotten into something that we were not aware of, and was suffering some sort of poisoning. So we rushed him to our vet, who looked him over and mentioned that she would like to do bloodwork and maybe an abdominal x-ray to see if they could find what was causing his symptoms. She left the room briefly to consult with another of the staff veterinarians, and came back in and told us that she felt certain it was rabies and he needed to be put down right away and sent for testing. This took us by surprise, as he has been outside maybe 3 times in his short life, all times strictly observed by myself or my husband. He had never had any contact with any outside dogs who were not vaccinated, and none of the other 6 puppies from his litter where showing similar symptoms. We didn't have time to think things through or do any research before we resigned to have him put down and tested, though the more I research and try and think things through now, I'm 99.99% sure that he could not have been exposed to rabies. I feel that our vet pushed us to euthanasia before we could consider all the options. Is that standard procedure for a puppy so young? Wouldn't it have been satisfactory to administer fluids and treat some of the symptoms in order to wait it out a few days just to be sure? He was an 11 week old puppy, and never bit anyone unprovoked. He played with us and his brothers and sisters, so we unfortunately couldn't verify that he had not bitten anyone on the paperwork, and I feel incredibly guilty now for having him put down before checking all the facts. The more research I do, the more it sounds like it was distemper and not rabies, and if that is the case, it may have been survivable. Did my vet make the right call by only giving us the option to euthanize? Is it common for a puppy so small to contract this disease when they've never been exposed to another mammal with it? I'm so confused and heartbroken over the loss of this sweet baby, and I'm angry and riddled with guilt that I was pushed to euthanize when he may have had something that we could've tried to treat.

July 29, 2018

I was bitten by a dog inside of a store and like anyone, a bit worried about it. I had work gloves on and was entering the restroom. Around the corner from inside the restroom come this guy and his dog, a german shepherd. As they go by, the dog bites me all of a sudden. The owner pulls him away after seeing that and says lets go. The wound was very minor and small and there was only one small mark. I feel like if this big dog was trying to bite me, i'd have more than just a tiny little scab like wound. And having the gloves on, I noticed no holes or anything in them after the "bite", if it even counts as a bite. The doctor that I saw totally dismissed any chance of rabies, even though the dogs status is unknown. Naturally, I'm not convinced i'm completely safe so I'm going back and asking for the shots. Sadly, I doubt they will give in to me so i'm just stuck hoping the dog turns up fine or the owner comes around and is caught and questioned.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
May 15, 2018

Dear Ingrid, I know the negative result makes it feel as though this was all done for no reason, and that probably makes the pain harder for you.  I'm so sorry.  Because rabies is such a lethal disease -- only one or two people are known to ever have survived -- testing regulations in many areas are extremely strict. I doubt your veterinarian had any choice.  But I recognize that probably doesn't lessen your grief.  May time bring you peace.

Ingrid Ennis
May 15, 2018

Thanks for your swift reply.  However,  i forgot to mention  (although I don't think it will make a difference in the way my beloved pet was tested) that we received the results yesterday from the rabies test and my beloved pet was NEGATIVE.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
May 15, 2018

Dear Ingrid, I'm so sorry for the loss of your beloved dog.  That sounds traumatic for all of you.  Unfortunately, if there was a bite and depending on his rabies vaccination status and the laws in your area,  the veterinarian likely had no other choice than to test for rabies.  Believe me, I don't know any veterinarian who tests for rabies for any reason other than absolute need -- it's an upsetting procedure for us too. :( Sadly, right now there is no other way to test than with brain tissue; cerebrospinal fluid won't work.  Again, I'm so very sorry for your experience and your loss.

Ingrid Ennis
May 15, 2018

My 5 1/2 year old dog who was mixture of Chihuaha,Yorkshire and Jack Russell got hit and ran over by a car. The driver of the vehicle that hit my dog got out and decided to either pick the dog up or touch the dog. As a consequence he got bit. When he took my kids father to the vet with the dog I believe he told the vet that he got bit. After xraying my dog and giving him Fentanyl for his pain I found out through my kid's father that the dog will need multiple surgery that would cost us upwards of 1000s of dollars which we did not have. When my kid's father called and notified me together we decided it would be best to put our beloved dog to rest. He then gave the Vetenarian the go ahead to euthanise him. The next day we decided that we would like to get him cremated and keep his ashes so we called the vet and notified her. However, at that point nothing was said to us about what had happen to our beloved pet after my kid's father had left the hospital. From the doctor's reply to our wishes we went out the following day to retrieve our dog's ashes only to be given the run around and before leaving found out that our beloved dog was beheaded and sent out to be tested for rabies. I was at that point very devasted since no one had notified us in advance that they were going to do such thing. Especially when we had requested to have our dog cremated. So my kid's father and I just decided to take the remaining body back home and bury him. What I want to know is, should someone have called us prior to beheading our dog and could the hospital have just taking some cerebral spinal fluid and test that for rabies. I feel so derespected and hurt. I am deaf and though I wear a cochlear for hearing now, prior to my cochlear implant I had gotten my dog to assist with my hearing and my other disabilities. I also had gotten his brother who thankfully is with us still, but not as active as he use to be because I believe he knows his brother is no longer with us. Thanks in advance for your reply. If you need me to clarify anything please let me know.

March 24, 2018

What if my dog bite or scratched me without bleeding. and i didn't get my anti-rabies vaccine then I my god died within 10 days. can I get a vaccine it will still save me?

Dr. Tony Johnson
February 15, 2018

Hi Ava, It really varies by municipality - some places will take vaccination status into consideration, and some will not. It also depends on the cause of the bite. If it was an unprovoked bite, that's more consistent with rabies than a provoked bite (say, if an owner is breaking up a dogfight). But, the authorities almost always retain the right to submit the head for testing, so to some degree you're right - a vaccine doesn't always mean you won't have to do it. But it is still a good idea to vaccinate your dog for their safety and public health reasons. I hope this information is useful. Sorry you had to go through this. You have my sympathies.

February 15, 2018

Doctor, thank you for the information.  We had to live through this and it is beyond horrible.  My question is, after reading the comments here, it seems whether your pet is vaccinated or not, they cut off the head of a deceased pet if he/she has bitten someone.  So in this situation vaccinating your pet does not preserve their dignity.  Correct me if I'm wrong.

December 5, 2017

Hi! Can ask about head testing? If the dog died then was buried, and then after 6 hours they took it from the grave and cut off the for rabies testing, is the result still be accurate? Thanks!

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
November 8, 2017

Hi Miriam, I'm sorry for the delay; I moderate the VetzInsight posts and have been traveling.  Unfortunately, none of us can really give you any specific advice since we are not familiar with rabies protocols in China, nor are any of us qualified to offer human medical advice. I would strongly recommend trying to talk with a physician regarding your own bites.

November 5, 2017

Hi, I'm in China, which has a serious rabies problem. We helped rescue eight puppies who were being used for rock-throwing target practice by some local guys. They went straight to the vet, where they all had blood tests for all the standard diseases, including rabies, and all eight came back negative for everything. That was 30 days ago, and then they all went to different foster homes. During that time none of them have had any health issues, and none have been exposed to any other animals. Two weeks ago, they all started their vaccinations, including rabies. Due to their previous experiences with humans (all negative) all the dogs are traumatized and terrified of people. We've found a permanent home for two of them together, but in getting one of them into a box and out of the house, both I and my friend were bitten. It was totally "provoked"–the animal was absolutely terrified and his foster-owner was well-meaning but clueless about how to help him feel more at ease around people. Other than being afraid of people, the dog's not acting in any way strange. Realizing that the blood test is not reliable; but also noting that all eight dogs tested negative, none have shown signs of illness over the last 30 days or been exposed to any other animals, and that the dog in question is two weeks into his vaccinations, we are wondering if we need to go immediately and get rabies shots ourselves, or if it will be sufficient to watch the dog for the next 10 days, which we can easily do, for any signs of illness? Being in China, it's difficult to get any good information on this issue. If you happen to see this and have any advice, we'd appreciate it.

Christy Corp-MInamiji, DVM
October 9, 2017

Hi Will, I'm sorry about your ankle.  Your best bet is to contact your county/local public health department and ask what they recommend.  Also, contact your veterinarian to get an appointment to get your cats' vaccines updated. :)

October 7, 2017

Today i was following my cat through our hallway and I believe I stepped on his tail. He freaked and bit plus scratched me on left ankle. It swelled immediately and I went to urgent care. They gave me antibiotic script and sent me home. They said they do not do rabies vaccines or assess a persons risk for rabies and If I was concerned I should go to er. My cat is expired and hasn’t had a vaccine in 8 years . He stays inside and has some exposure to my  outdoor cat who sneaks in from time to time. The outdoor cat is up to date onshots As of 60 days ago. The indoor cat spend some time in garage about a 45 days ago and snuck out and roamed the neighborhood one morning and we didn’t get him back inside untill the following morning. Other than his one day exposure outdoors he is never outside . I don’t know what I should do . Do I visit a er . Also do I vaccinate my cat  now or wait. He always plays with our feet in bed and bites playfully but never broke the skin. I never even thought about rabies untill the doctor at urgent care. Do I need the rabies shots from a hospital . I’m supposed to visit my primary to check the bite wound in 3 days . 

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
August 19, 2017

Hi Dave, I'm so sorry for your experience.  That's not fun at all!  To answer your question, rabies regulations (testing, quarantine, human public health intervention) tend to be set at the local (municipal or county) level in the United States.  While it is considered a reportable disease, the regulations regarding the specifics aren't standardized across the country..

August 18, 2017

Need help!  I was bitten by a feral cat.  This article follows the protocol explained to me by my health department and my vet, however, at the end of the process the health department choose to not test.  Short story long:  My Mother and other folks at her work have been feeding the cat for 11 years, I would consider it a shop cat.  The cat as I stated is feral so there has been zero human contact over the years.  A few weeks ago my mother noticed the cat having issues eating so she asked that I help her capture it so the vet could evaluate and hopefully correct.  Nine days ago I accomplished this task with her but unfortunately was bitten in the process (yes I thought I was protected).  I immediately went to the hospital and my Mother took the cat to the emergency vet for evaluation.  The hospital placed me on antibiotics and told me rabies risk was low but also validated the vet had the cat and would be able to confirm.  Upon evaluation at the vet it was determined the cat had a tumor under its tongue, curing this issue was not an option so the decision made was to euthanize and submit the cat for testing which we were told was the law.  Fast forward seven days, I called the vet asking if they had results of the test.  To my surprise the vet informed me that the health department contacted them and stated testing was not required and to follow the owners wishes for the animal.  In this case my mother choose cremation (first time with any animal) as she didn’t want a headless cat back.  I called the health department asking why the testing had been cancelled since this was a feral cat and the vet had only observed it for less than 24 hours.  The supervisor told me this was out of protocol and would have to consult with the nurse.  The nurse called back stating the supervisor was newer than she was and didn’t know the protocol.  The nurse also stated she felt the chance of the cat having rabies was low after consulting with the vet so she called off the testing.  I said low isn’t the same as no, I asked could she guarantee the cat was rabies free?  Her response was “I’m not going to say that but again the risk is low”.  My doctor sent me to the hospital yesterday (day 8 from bite) for the rabies vaccine and HRIG, 11 painful shots throughout my body.  In addition I have three follow up vaccine shots over the next two weeks. Sorry about the detail but I would like to know where it is written the animal must be tested.  Is this by state or a national law?

Nancy Watts
August 10, 2017

You were modest about describing the necessity to collect nerve tissue by removing dogs' heads.  My vet was not so kind; he openly and aggressively informed me my pug's head will be removed and sent in for rabies; he was current on rabies but had tangled with a raccoon 3 nights before.  i came home from work one night and found my little pug dead in my house.

Susan Davis
August 8, 2017

This article is spot on and I had to experience this exact scenario. Sadly for me, our veterinarian wither couldn't or wouldn't utilize the wiggle-room options you describe. Our dear dog's head was removed after she was euthanized and I live with this knowledge. She bit me while I was trying to get her to the hospital after being attacked by a dog off leash. She was up-to-date on all her rabies vaccines to the date. I felt I needed to answer honestly when the question of 'has she bitten anyone in the last 10 days' was asked.

January 5, 2017

I rescued a kitten on Oct 30 lying in the middle of the street. Took her straight to the vet, she weighed 14 oz and was malnourished. He guessed he age at 6 weeks. I brought her home, took her to the vet every 3 weeks and she hit the 2 pound mark on Dec 12th. I took her this past Sat for her rabies and second distemper. By 4 in the afternoon she was drooling excessively but seemed fine otherwise. The drooling stopped after a few minutes. She was fine Sunday. Very late on Mon afternoon, she became erratic and all over the place. When I went to bed I put her in the bedroom where her bed was and closed the door. I got up Tues morning and she was lying on her back between the door and the wall. Her legs were straight up in the air, she was covered in drool and cold to the touch. I placed in a towel, warmed her up and she seemed exhausted. She could not support herself on her back legs. I took her to the vet as soon as he opened and did not seem to know what it could be. He mentioned rabies, encephalitis, epilepsy. She improved Tues night, was walking and ate and drank some thing. Wed morning when he checked on her she had lost her vision and was shaking as if cold. We made the decision to have her put to sleep and the vet, wanting to know what really was going on, has sent her for autopsy and rabies testing. About 2-3 weeks ago we were playing and as I reached for her ball, she went to take it in her mouth and pricked my finger, not a bite, just a prick. A bare amount of blood came up. My question is if she does test positive for rabies, what should my next step be? We had her for 12 weeks and she stayed in the house the whole time. If exposed to rabies prior to my rescuing her, would it not have shown up sooner? She was malnourished and her immune system weak. I don't know what to do. Help.

October 5, 2016

I had a situation that is a little bit similar but different in other ways. My dog was attacked by an animal on September 20th, 2016 and due to shock he passed away. He was only 3 years old, received his 6 month shots, and 1 year and his 3rd year; needless to say he was protected. However, during the process of grieving the loss of my dog, the health department reported to us that a neighbour had filed a report that our dog the week prior had bit someone. They stated his body must be sent to Ottawa for about a 10 day period and sent back. We were explained his head would be chopped off and the brain tested. He was in the clear. However we were promised every body part to be sent back to us so we could cremate his remains and have him in a urn. The health department later told us as per their protocol they have to dispose of his head. They stated they called 3 days later several times and couldn't get a hold of us and that we did not have a voicemail (which is false). Not only did this process extend our grieving process, I feel my family and I were given false pretences and lies of what would take place, making it that much harder.

September 4, 2016

My friend has 2 mastiff dogs and they accidentally ran out the front door today when they saw a lady walking her dog in front of the house. They did bite the dog a couple times and after the mastiffs were removed and put back in the house all 3 dogs were fine with maybe a few surface scratches and bumps. Animal control later showed up for a bite report and needed proof of the rabies vaccine for the mastiffs which expired on 6/30/2016... So 2 months ago. Are the dogs still considered immunized and protected as long as they get there rabies shot immediately? I don't want anything to happen to the dogs and my friend is worried. I've been trying to research how long past due a rabies shot still effective and any scholarly documented research and/or proof to back up the dogs are still safe after 2 months but without concern for rabies. I know they need to have their shot ASAP and they will get it but trying to prevent any sort of lawsuit from the other pet owner or my friend to lose his dogs. Any advice, resources or help you can offer would be most appreciated! Thank you .

September 3, 2016

Hello, I was bitten by a neighbors dog yesterday and it seems like he broke skin (it was a very small cut though, so can't tell completely).  The dog lives in an area where wildlife exposure is a possibility.  He was not showing neuro signs or anything, but just playing around.  I am in the veterinary field so I have been vaccinated for rabies and have an adequate titer.  The dog got vaccinated for rabies today.  He is young (maybe 6 months) and today was his first shot.  My understanding is that the dog should be monitored for 10 days, but that I don't really need PEP or anything like that.  My question is?  Can an unvaccinated dog who is shedding the rabies virus through saliva, get vaccinated for the first time, and not develop CNS signs?  I know this seems far-fetched, but it's the actual situation that I'm on.  Thank you!

Dr. Tony Johnson
August 30, 2016

Hi Zoey; I'm sorry that you got bit and that you are scared. You did the right thing in letting someone know, but you do have a little work to do now. In the vast majority of cases, pets don't have to be put down because they bite a human, but you do need to let your parents and doctor know the truth. They will most likely understand why you said what you said, but it's important to let them know what really happened. I hope that they'll know it was love for your cat that made you do it, and I think they will. Let me know if I can help you further, but it'll be OK. Most of the time (if your cat is feeling healthy and hasn't had any odd behavior or contact with wild animals) they just require a few days of quarantine for your cat, which just means she is observed at home. Please write back and let us know that all went OK - for you and your cat.

Zoey Bennett
August 30, 2016

So my cat bit me yesterday and I'm assuming that she doesn't have rabies but my finger swelled up pretty bad so I told the doctor it was a stray cause I was scared they would put her down :( I wanna tell them the truth now but I told them it was a stray and I'm kinda scared to. I'm 11 and I'm scared can you help?

David Chacon
July 10, 2016

My dog got kill by a neighbor and his dog  yesterday . He shot my dog even tho hes dog was the one who attack him. He claimed that he had dog bites but he didnt knew witch dog was it so ofcourse they took the dog that was already murder to take the head off and test for rabies but his dog the agressive one stay home .. I dont undesrtand should it both getting tested for ?

June 9, 2016

15 days ago my dog bit my neighbor.  I have quarantined him in my house for the 15 days without contact with anyone but me and dad. Now animal control is calling to quarantine my dog. His rabies vaccination expired. I live in California. What is going to happen? I am afraid to call them back.  What do I do?

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
February 4, 2016

Dear KS, What a pain for you all!  I'm glad neither your dog nor family were hurt, and great job doing all the right things so far. So here's the brief scoop with quarantining vaccinated animals. (Bear with me, this gets complicated.) There are several things at play here: 1) Disease depends on two factors: exposure and immunity.  Both of these exist on a gradient (think of it like a volume control vs. an on/off switch.)  With vaccination, the hoped for ideal, is that vaccination will produce a strong enough immune response to kill off the virus the animal was exposed to before that virus can multiply and cause disease.  Think of it as having an army on standby to deter an invading force.  However, just as there is no army that is 100% capable of fending off everything, no vaccine is proven to be 100% effective against any disease.  An animal might have a suppressed immune system due to medications or other illness or its body may simply have decided not to respond to vaccination.  These situations are rare, and the rabies vaccine is one of the most effective out there, but we have to acknowledge the possibility of vaccine failure, even if  it's remote.  That is because... 2) Rabies is almost entirely fatal.  Very few (like less than 1% ) humans or other mammals survive clinical rabies infection (where the virus has escaped the immune system and replicates in the body causing disease).  So the government takes a very strict better-safe-than-sorry approach with rabies. I hope those two points answer your question on why the quarantine.  Now for the others: 3) Can she carry the virus or shed it without getting sick?  No.  As far as we know, the rabies virus is only shed during active disease.  However, there can be a long period between exposure and signs of disease as the virus migrates along the nerves from the bite to the brain.  That's why the long quarantine time. 4) Is my family safe?  Most likely, yes.  I'd take the normal precautions of minimizing who is exposed to her during this time and washing hands well after feeding/petting her.  And if it were my family (I have three kids), I'd keep her isolated from them during the quarantine period just to be on the safe side. This way, should the unthinkable worst happen and she turn out to have rabies (remember, very small chance, but still to be taken seriously), there will be far fewer people needing post-exposure prophylaxis shots. 5) Do I need to isolate her from everyone who comes to our home?  Yes.  Not only is that the law, but do you really want to contemplate having to find everyone who was exposed to her if she were to become ill? I hope this clears up some of the confusion for you.  Please let us know how it goes!

February 2, 2016

Our situation: Our dog has never lapsed in her rabies vaccinations.  She recently killed a skunk by biting it but she was not injured. Remarkably, she didn't even get sprayed! I immediately called the vet and per instructions, donned gloves, thoroughly bathed the dog and took her to get a rabies booster.  Animal control took the skunk and three days later, we were notified that the skunk was confirmed to have rabies. I was issued a 45 day home confinement order with very strict quarantine guidelines.  Everyone assures me that she will be fine and that the quarantine is just a state-mandated safety measure. Of course, we will honor the quarantine, but if the dog is protected from rabies, why the quarantine?  Can she carry the virus (or pass it on to us) but not get sick?  Is my family safe?  (She's a non-aggressive sweetie, but she drools and slobbers when she plays -- total love-bug...) Do I need to isolate her from everyone who comes into our home? -- the quarantine says yes, but everyone assures me that she's covered ... So why the quarantine and how worried should I be about my children and those who come into our home? I can confine her inside our home and keep her on a leash when we go outside, but the terms of this quarantine don't seem to be in-line with the thinking/reassurance that everyone is saying about her being "covered."

December 27, 2015

Is there no way of testing without having to cut off the head? I understand that they must test the brain but we are able to do brain surgery and stuff, why not do the same to test for rabies??

November 19, 2015

Great I used it for a school project thanks!!

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
November 5, 2015

Hi Krystal, Dr. Teri Oursler  worked with Dr. Radford Davis, an infectious disease specialist to put together this answer to your questions.I don't understand why animals cannot get the PEP treatment that humans get once exposed.Human PEP, for unvaccinated people, relies on human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) to provide instant antibodies until the vaccines they are given can generate antibodies and cell-mediated immunity on its own. There is no equivalent of HRIG for animals. In the U.S., the recommended PEP vaccine schedule for unvaccinated humans exposed to rabies is currently 1 vaccine on day 0 (the same day they receive HRIG), day 3, day 7, and day 14. This schedule has been modified over the years, but has been proven to prevent rabies in any person who receives it before they show signs. There has been no significant research into a similar schedule for dogs or other domestic animals. A vaccinated dog exposed to rabies should be vaccinated right away. This is PEP for dogs. The immediate vaccine ramps up the immunity the dog already has from its previous vaccine. An unvaccinated dog could be vaccinated right away, but it is not guaranteed the vaccine will generate immunity quickly enough in this unvaccinated animal to prevent rabies virus from taking hold. We could give additional vaccines in a short time frame, like they do with people, but there is no evidence a multi-dose schedule is any better than a single dose. It may be, or may not. The state of Texas does use a multi-dose PEP schedule in dogs exposed to rabies. Texas recommends 3 rabies vaccinations over 8 weeks (Day 0, week 3, week 8) and a 90 day quarantine instead of a 6 month quarantine. This differs from the Rabies Compendium recommendation, but they feel it works and use it. I also don't understand all of this beheading of animals who were not behind on rabies shots.The testing of the brain for rabies in an animal is done when rabies is suspected, or when answers are needed quickly by public health or animal control officials as to whether an animal has rabies or not. Often there is a greater question of whether the animal might be a risk to other animals or people. A domestic animal that is vaccinated for rabies still has a small potential of acquiring rabies. This is why a dog, cat or ferret (whether vaccinated or not for rabies) that bites a person should be quarantined for 10 days. If the 10 day quarantine is not possible, then the animal should be tested. Can't you just do a blood test to check and see the level of immunity...I think they call it a titer.We do not know what a protective titer for rabies is, not in humans, and not in dogs, cats, cows, horses, pigs, etc.  A titer only measures antibodies to the virus and it could be that those antibodies are there because of vaccine or because of infection.  Just because an animal has a titer to rabies, does not mean they are protected from contracting rabies.  In addition, immunity against rabies also includes cell mediated immunity, which antibody levels don’t measure. Animals are living beings too and I understand that rabies is a gruesome disease but we have (or seem to have) better technology for dealing with this at our fingertips. Rabies is not only gruesome, it is almost always 100% fatal, in all mammals, including humans! I want to re-emphasize that there is no antemortem (live animal) test for rabies. Using any other test besides the  Direct Fluorescent Antibody (DFA) Test on the brain tissue carries a risk of false negative or false positive results that could prove fatal for humans and animals. The best technology at our fingertips is to have your animal current on its rabies vaccinations so that if they do bite someone, no one wants to behead them.

October 31, 2015

I don't understand why animals cannot get the PEP treatment that humans get once exposed. I also don't understand all of this beheading of animals who were not behind on rabies shots. Can't you just do a blood test to check and see the level of immunity...I think they call it a titer. Animals are living beings too and I understand that rabies is a gruesome disease but we have(or seem to have)  better technology for dealing with this at our fingertip

Phyllis DeGioia
September 28, 2015

Hi DJ, If an unvaccinated dog bites you, there is always a small chance. I suggest you go to the doctor as soon as possible due to the small risk that the dog has rabies - urgent care or a walk in clinic, or telephone an ER - and ask their opinion. What I can tell you is that they no longer give a long series of painful shots in the abdomen. My friend had the series after she was bitten by a bat and says the gamma globulin shot, given in the behind, is uncomfortable because the fluid is thick, but the actual vaccine shots, which go in the arm, are not. She said none of it was painful. I presume people are talking to you about the bad old days when a lengthy series of painful shots had to be given in the abdomen.  You could also go back to the dog park and see if the owner is there, and find out if the dog's rabies vaccination is current.

September 28, 2015

Hello the other day i was bit by a dog at the park it was an owners dog today the bite does not hurt but he pricked  me a little bit so he made contact with my blood is there chance i might have rabies. Im a terrified of whats going to happen to me and i scared of needles and they said the testing is painful.

September 22, 2015

I can't believe the rumor of "painful injections" given for possible rabies persist. I was bitten by a bat and it was not found as it flew off into the night back in the early 1990's. I had to have the series of three injections for possible exposure. They are given in the upper arm deltoid muscle and can tell you they don't hurt in the least. I have had flu shots and tetanus shots and even pain medicine shots that hurt considerably after but no pain from the rabies prevention shot EVER, and my medical providers would and have labeled me as having a "low thresh hold" for pain and discomfort. Just put that fear out of your minds people. The days of deep fat injections given in the belly are so long gone, IT doesn't happen any more. A tiny shot in upper arm and hurts far less than a flu shot if it hurts at all.

Wade Adams 
February 3, 2015

I just lost my beloved Cocker Spaniel after he was hit by a vehicle.  He was pinned beneath the car and I was bitten as I extricated him  This scenario was presented to me.  It is insulting to presume that a small, cheerful Family pet must be mutilated despite having all current vaccinations, and at my expense (in this case $300).  I am bitter.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM 
December 12, 2014

Dear Karen,  I am so very sorry for your dog's illness and death.  I know how much it hurts to lose a member of the family, but I urge you, for your family's sake and for the health and safety of the technician who was bitten, please comply with your local authorities.  Your family needs to have you present and not in conflict with the law, and the technician who was bitten does not deserve to have to undergo a series of painful and expensive injections unless they are absolutely necessary.  Your beloved dog's suffering is over.  I know it is distasteful and hurtful to you, but allowing his brain to be tested will not hurt him and will prevent suffering to the technician and further emotional pain for your family.  Wishing you peace, Christy.

Karen Warren 
December 12, 2014

Dear VIN & readers- any help would be greatly appreciated as I am going through the exact gruesome details of my dog's possible beheading for rabies testing right now.  He bit the vet tech at what was now his final visit due to kidney failure- which even the vet has submitted a statement saying the bite was invoked and caused by severe pain and suffering.  He passed two days later.  I live in Matthews, NC and the Union County Sherriffs office called me 60 minutes ago and issued a warrant for my arrest as I will not disclose the information regarding his whereabouts.  He was part of our family for 9 1/2 years and I will not do that to him or my children.  Let him rest in peace.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM 
August 28, 2014 

Dear Jessica, I am so sorry about the loss of your cat; euthanasia is a difficult decision, but it sounds as though it was for the best.  And it sounds as though your veterinary hospital made the right call to ensure the safety of their staff and of you and your family.  I don't know the policy of your local diagnostic laboratory, but I'd urge you to focus on the good, long life you gave your kitty.

August 28, 2014

I just put my 19 year old cat to sleep when 4 days at the vet wasn't showing any improvement.  They informed us that she had bitten a staff member, and since her rabies was about 10 years behind, they had to do a rabies test.  So we opted for cremation.  Do they send the head back?  Probably not, right?  God, that's gonna break my heart knowing she was cremated without her head.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM 
August 5, 2014

Dear Jaco, thank you for your question.  I'm afraid that rules regarding rabies quarantine and testing are regionally specific.  None of us at VetzInsight are qualified to speak to rabies protocols outside the United States.  Even within the U.S. regulations may vary by state or county. 

Jaco Klopper 
August 3, 2014

Hi. Thank you for all the information. It was really help full. I have a question. Lets say a stray dog has rabies, what must be done by law. Do they actually investigate and list that area as a redlist or what. Thank you. Regards, Mpumelanga Animal Crime Watch, South Africa

Shannon Bass, DVM 
January 28, 2013

Great article on a difficult topic, hopefully it helps owners understand how vitally important Rabies vaccination is.

Fiona Gilcrist, DVMS 
January 29, 2013

Loving the articles, but since they are intended at least in part to educate the public, thought I'd ask if it's correct to say rabid dogs "foam at the mouth" because their salivary glands are infected. I thought it was caused by motor paralysis of the pharynx and resultant dysphagia.

Tony Johnson
January 30, 2013

Thanks for the additional info. While I think this may get into too much biological detail for the average layperson, I agree that the neuro dysfunction of the cranial nerves would be the root cause of the 'foaming'. The amazing part for me was the fact that the virus is:

  • present in saliva
  • makes the patient drool (making more little virions present themselves to the unfortunate victim)
  • and makes the patient more aggressive

Which all conspire to make this one mean little mother of a virus - the perfect storm of factors to ensure that it gets passed on.

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