Puppies who have been exposed to, or scuffled with, a wild animal are at risk for contracting rabies. The best protection from rabies is vaccination. Even if your puppy is vaccinated, if it is bitten by another animal it's important to visit your vet before it displays any signs.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus that affects the brain and spinal cord of dogs and other mammals. Once signs develop, the virus is usually fatal. The incubation period can be days to over one year.
Signs of Rabies in Puppies
Dogs infected with rabies suffer severe signs. At first, your puppy may show behavior changes. Previously friendly dogs become irritable and energetic animals become more docile. Following this stage, there are two clinical forms of disease. In 'furious' rabies, aggression and excitability pervade. Dogs eat abnormal substances (rocks, dirt, etc.) As the disease progresses, dogs show systemic paralysis, can no longer eat or drink, and finally death. In the 'dumb' form of rabies, there is progressive paralysis of the limbs and eventually slackening of the throat and jaw muscles leading to an inability to swallow saliva and the impression of the dog 'foaming at the mouth'. This is followed by disorientation, loss of appetite, seizures, and death.
There are no accurate diagnostic tests for rabies prior to death, nor are there known effective treatments. The disease can only diagnosed with a biopsy of the infected animal's brain after death.
Causes of Rabies
Rabies is most commonly transmitted to dogs, puppies, or other animals through a bite from an infected animal. The virus is secreted through the infected animal's saliva and enters the bloodstream. Rabies can also be contracted through a scratch or open wound or when saliva containing the virus comes in contact with mucosal membranes. Puppies left to roam free can encounter wild animals that carry rabies. Raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks pose the highest risk of transmitting the disease. Should your young dog run into such a creature on its outing, and contact ensues, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately.
The only sign your puppy has rabies are the physical signs it presents. At that point, the likelihood of survival is grim.
If there's even a small chance your dog was exposed to a rabid animal, call your vet immediately. In some cases, it is possible to interrupt the infection by administering an anti-rabies serum containing specific antibodies to the virus. Your vet may also be able to prevent the progression of the disease with a rabies vaccine. This helps the puppy's immune system produce its own antibodies to the virus. Even with aggressive, immediate post-exposure treatment, the prognosis is grave.
If your vaccinated puppy is diagnosed with rabies it must be quarantined so it won't infect other animals or people. The length of the quarantine varies by state and can include up to six months of isolation, should your puppy survive that long. Unvaccinated dogs suspected of having rabies are euthanized and then their body undergoes testing for confirmation of infection.
The only way to prevent rabies is by vaccinating your pets. A rabies vaccination is imperative for your young dog's health (and required by law in every state but Hawaii). Each state makes its own rabies laws that delineate when you should vaccinate your dog, but most recommend the first shot between the ages of 3 to 4 months. Some states, like Wisconsin, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and West Virginia, require vaccination after 5 or 6 months. And 13 other states—Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington State, and Wyoming—refer to the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control developed by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. Hawaii does not require rabies vaccination because they have never had a case in their state. They do require quarantine for imported dogs and cats.
Opting out of Vaccination
Some pet owners choose not to vaccinate their dog for rabies. Rabies vaccinations protect more than dogs, are given to protect humans from the deadly disease. And while it's not technically illegal to skip a rabies vaccination, if your dog gets picked up by animal control they will vaccinate it and you may be fined. In some states, under specific conditions (e.g. an extremely elderly pet or one that has existing health issues) your vet can write an exemption letter that is submitted to the state. This letter prevents an unvaccinated pet from being excluded from air travel, boarding, daycare, and grooming. However, if your dog does bite someone, the consequences can be dire, as unvaccinated dogs can be immediately euthanized in some states.