There's no accurate way to test a dog for rabies -- at least, while the animal is still alive. That's because the rabies virus doesn't enter the bloodstream but heads from the original transmission bite into the brain. It also enters the salivary glands, but current saliva testing isn't 100 percent accurate. A rabies test must be 100 percent accurate, because it's a 100 percent fatal disease that can spread to people. Quarantining a dog suspected of rabies exposure is the best -- and mandated -- option.
Rabies in Dogs
A dog is exposed to rabies via a bite from an infected animal. Wild animals often carrying the rabies virus include foxes, bats, racoons, coyotes and skunks. If a wild animal shows no fear of people, or a nocturnal animal is wandering around in the daytime, that's a sign the animal could be rabid. After exposure, it usually takes two weeks to two months for symptoms to appear. However, an animal can spread the virus through his saliva about 10 days before becoming symptomatic.
Signs of Rabies
A dog infected with the rabies virus often develops a 180-degree personality change, with friendly dogs becoming aggressive and vice versa. Other symptoms include appetite loss, lack of coordination, restlessness, hypersalivation, biting at other animals or objects, inability to swallow and foaming at the mouth. However, it's quite possible that a rabid dog exhibits no symptoms until he dies.
Rabies quarantine laws vary by state and municipality. While it's important to keep your dog current on his rabies vaccinations, that doesn't mean he can avoid quarantine if he's bitten someone or been bitten by a potentially rabid animal.
A dog with an up-to-date vaccination will usually have to spend a minimum time in quarantine, at least 10 days. In some jurisdictions, that minimum time is far longer. For example, Pennsylvania requires a 90-day quarantine for dogs current on rabies vaccinations at the time of potential exposure. If the dog wasn't vaccinated, or a booster vaccination was overdue, it's a six-month quarantine.
Depending on state and local law, the quarantine can take place at your home or at a quarantine facility. If the latter, you may be responsible for paying board for the time your dog is there. Home quarantine generally means the dog must be kept indoors until the prescribed period is up. A quarantine sign may be placed on your property by state or local authorities.
Wild animals caught after biting people are generally euthanized immediately. A veterinarian or authorized veterinary technician then removes the animal's head and sends it to a state laboratory for rabies testing. While this isn't the standard situation for domestic dogs -- that's why there's a quarantine period -- it can become necessary. That's what happens should a dog not current on his vaccination die or require euthanization before the end of the quarantine period. Depending on the jurisdiction, this beheading and brain testing may be necessary even if the dead dog was up to date on his rabies vaccination.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.