Rabies: what you need to know

Rabies kills one person every 10 minutes somewhere in the world.

This fatal viral infection is most common in Asia and Africa but is 100% preventable.

Jackals, mongooses and bat-eared foxes are common rabies carriers although all mammals are susceptible. The virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, either when they bite, or when their saliva comes into contact with broken skin (including scabs) or the eyes, nose or mouth of another animal or an individual.

jackal are rabies carriers in SA

“Most often, people tend to associate rabies with images of dogs foaming at the mouth. In reality, a wide variety of mammals can carry the virus including cats, bats and even cattle, and it should also be noted that rabid animals do not necessarily foam at the mouth.

“While some rabid animals may become more aggressive, it is also not uncommon for wild animals with rabies to act uncharacteristically tame,” says Dr Pete Vincent, of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai family medical and dental centre.

In many instances dogs may have rabies without their owners even realising until it dies and an autopsy reveals the cause of death.

It is a legal requirement in South Africa to have your pets vaccinated against rabies.

If an animal bites a person the bite should be treated as a medical emergency especially if the animal that bit the person is not known, is wild, or was acting strangely at the time the bite occurred. Untreated, the person will die.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of rabies usually take anything from 20 to 60 days to manifest. In 3-5% of cases it can take up to 18 months. Symptoms vary from person to person, but often include flu-like sore throats, headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, depression, restlessness and insomnia.

Overproduction of saliva and uncontrollable excitement and aggression often marks the next phase, followed by spasms of the throat and voice box, which can be extremely painful. This happens because rabies affects the area in the brain responsible for breathing and swallowing. Attempts to drink water can also bring on these spasms.


Diagnosing rabies in its early stages, especially if a doctor is not told about an animal bite, is not easy. Symptoms are varied and may resemble many other diseases. To make a confirmed diagnosis of rabies, brain tissue of the animal that bit the person must be examined. In the case of a pet which shows no symptoms, the animal will be taken under the state veterinarian’s jurisdiction. He/she will decide if the animal needs to be observed for signs of rabies and for how long, or if further steps need to be taken. This may include euthanasia if there is no valid vaccination history available. The tests available in living patients are not always accurate in making a diagnosis and a negative result could be a false negative. In the case of the blood test, it will only help in diagnosing the condition once serious symptoms have set it. The most accurate test is done on brain tissue of patients after death.

cat vac

vaccination is your best prevention


Vaccinate your pets.


Puppies must be vaccinated against rabies when they have their third series of combination vaccines against diseases like parvo and distemper (at 12-16 weeks) and again, within 9 months. It’s easiest to get the first vaccination at 12 weeks and then a month later at 16 weeks. After the second vaccination, rabies vaccinations are administered at least every three years, although due to recent rabies outbreaks in the country veterinarians are now recommending yearly vaccination.


At 12 weeks of age and then within nine months of the first vaccination. After the second vaccination, rabies vaccinations are administered every three years. The repeat vaccination programme follows what is recommended for dogs (see above).

Vaccinations are given under the skin at the nape of the neck. Most animals tolerate these injections very well as they are not painful. Generally there are no side effects though some animals may see a bit drowsy for 24 hours after vaccination. A very small percentage of animals will show an allergic reaction but this is very rare and is treatable.

Vaccinating your pet will not only save their lives but can protect the people and other animals it comes into contact with too.

It is possible to vaccinate people against rabies. This is usually done in the case of people who, through their work, may come into contact with animals that may be infected. Game rangers, veterinarians, animal welfare workers and laboratory workers all fall into this group. If you believe you are at high risk, ie if you farm in areas that are endemic to rabies, you can aksi to be vaccinated by your general practitioner. The start up vaccination programme for people is Day 0, Day 7m Days 21/28 and a year later and then every three years.

Immediate preventative steps must be taken when someone may have been bitten by a rabid animal. This can prevent someone from developing rabies.

 What to do in the event of potential rabies exposure:

  1. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water, for at least 10 minutes under running water, in an attempt to get rid of the virus.
  2. Consult a doctor immediately so that treatment is not delayed.
  3. Your doctor will likely give you a series of rabies vaccinations. Keep a record of the dates of each injection and be sure to complete the course. The doctor should not suture the wound as this will spread the virus in the exposed area.
  4. Depending on the severity (category) of the injury, your doctor may also inject rabies immunoglobulin around the wound.

How to protect yourself and your family against rabies exposure:

  1. Ensure your pets’ and livestock’s rabies vaccinations are up to date.
  2. Keep your domesticated animals away from animals that may not be vaccinated.
  3. Avoid contact with wild, stray or unfamiliar animals where at all possible.
  4. Educate your children about the risks of rabies and how to avoid exposure and teach them to tell you when they encountered strange animals.
  5. Ensure friends, family and child minders know about the risks of rabies and what to do in case of potential exposure.

Vaccination against rabies and a tetanus injection must also be given immediately after a bite. People can still die from rabies, especially if treatment is delayed after the initial bite occurred.

 In most cases, preventing rabies is as simple as ensuring adequate pre-exposure rabies vaccination as well as pet vaccination and control, avoiding contact with stray domestic and wild animals and educating those at risk.

* In June this year, rabies was found in four jackals and one unvaccinated domestic dog in Muldersdrift, Kromdraai and Lanseria in Gauteng. An intensive dog vaccination campaign was then launched by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There were also two outbreaks in the Western Cape last year. A six-year-old girl died of rabies in the eastern Free State in July but it is not known how she was exposed.