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All you need to know about rabies and rabies vaccination for pets

Rabies is a dangerous zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Countries all over the world are trying their hardest to contain and eradicate rabies. With increasing awareness and vaccination programs, many countries have eradicated rabies. However, rabies is still a huge concern in developing countries, where more than 60,000 people die annually from rabies through dog bites.

The rabies vaccination is usually given to puppies and kittens, and the vaccination must be kept current throughout their lives. The vaccine has a one-year or three-year validity, and pets must be revaccinated before the vaccine expires. The rabies vaccination is an important step in the international pet transport process; it is an essential requirement in most countries worldwide.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a life-threatening viral disease that affects mammals. It is a zoonotic disease, which means it can travel from animals to humans. The fact that rabies is usually fatal once the symptoms develop makes it one of the most dangerous viral diseases ever. However, rabies is preventable with vaccination. Rabies is treatable in humans and animals only before the symptoms set in. It is, therefore, essential to visit the doctor immediately after being bitten by an animal. 

Rabies spreads through direct contact with saliva or any other bodily fluids of an infected animal. Rabies can spread when an infected animal bites, scratches or even licks on an open wound. The virus enters the body through the bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it causes encephalitis or inflammation of brain tissue. The virus attacks the neurons in the brain, which sets off a series of neurological symptoms like extreme behavioural changes and aggression. Rabies symptoms are not seen immediately after biting; it can take weeks or sometimes months to develop. Once the rabies virus reaches the brain, the disease is usually fatal. 

It is hard to spot rabies symptoms because it varies from animal to animal. However, the commonly seen rabies symptoms to watch for are:

  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Withdrawn and restless
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive salivation
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty in swallowing

Once the symptoms set in, the disease progresses rapidly, and death occurs within a few weeks. 

Prevention of rabies

Since rabies is deadly for both animals and humans, experts believe that prevention is the best cure. The disease is easily preventable with regular vaccination. If a stray or wild animal bites your pet, rush to the vet immediately for rabies care. Here’s what you can do to prevent the spread of rabies:

  • Vaccinate your pet – Pet dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies, and the vaccination must always be current. Remember to give your pets their booster doses as required to keep the vaccination from expiring. Even indoor-only cats and dogs must be vaccinated against rabies. Though the chances of contracting the disease are low for an indoor-only pet, it is still not impossible. Vaccinating your pet dog or cat against rabies is a critical requirement for public safety and a fundamental obligation as a responsible pet parent.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals – Wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes are known carriers of the rabies virus and pet parents must ensure their pets do not come in close contact with these animals. If you are out in a wooded area with your pet, make sure your pet is on a lead to avoid chance interaction with wild animals. Some house cats are fond of exploring the outdoors, and it is impossible to tell if they’ve had contact with wild animals. If you live close to a forest or the woods, make sure your cat remains indoors for their safety. 
  • Report pet bites – If your pet is attacked or bitten by another pet or a wild animal, report it to the vet immediately so your pet can receive the care they need and the other animal can be taken in for observation. Even if the other pet is vaccinated, it is still important to report and receive urgent care. 
  • Microchip your pet – Pet microchips help identify lost or stolen pets. It holds a record of your pet’s health data, including vaccinations. If a lost pet attacks your pet, a quick scan of the microchip can determine if the pet is vaccinated against rabies.  

Rabies vaccination schedule 

The rabies vaccine is an altered or inactive version of the virus, which invokes an immune response in your pet and creates antibodies that fight the disease. Your pet’s immune response to the vaccine deteriorates over time, and your pet needs multiple doses throughout their lives to protect them from the disease. Vets usually advise dogs and cats to receive booster doses every year or every three years, depending on the vaccine.

  • Dogs – Puppies must be around 12 to 16 weeks old to receive the first dose of the rabies vaccine. This is called the primary dose, and the second dose of the vaccine is given within one year of the primary vaccination. Subsequent doses, known as booster doses, are administered every year or every three years, depending on the vaccine.
  • Cats – Kittens receive their first rabies vaccination at 8 to 12 weeks old. The second dose of the vaccine is given within a year of the first dose. Booster doses are administered yearly or once every three years, depending on the vaccine and the manufacturer’s instructions.

Rabies is a dangerous and usually fatal zoonotic disease that can easily be prevented by timely vaccination. Remember to keep the vaccination current and visit the vet if your pet is attacked or bitten by another animal.

Since Australia is a rabies-free country, rabies vaccination is not part of the regular vaccination schedule in the country. Most vets in Australia administer the Nobivac rabies vaccine for pets travelling to other countries where rabies is present. The Nobivac vaccine is an inactivated vaccine for dogs and cats given through subcutaneous or intramuscular injection. This vaccine is used for prevention as well as post-bite therapy. Nobivac 1-Rabies provides protection against rabies for at least one year, and Nobivac 3-Rabies protects your pet for three years. 

The rabies vaccine is highly effective in preventing rabies. However, as in all vaccines, there is always a small risk of infection even after vaccination, which is why even vaccinated pets are revaccinated after they are attacked or bitten by another pet or wild animal.  

Rabies vaccination for international travel

The rabies vaccination is essential for international pet travel because it helps prevent the spread of the rabies virus and keeps your pet and local animals safe. If you are preparing your pet for international travel, they will need a rabies vaccination before they can travel. If your pet is travelling to a country where rabies is present, be sure to vaccinate them according to the import requirements of the destination country.

Most countries insist on a waiting period of 21 to 30 days after the rabies vaccination is administered before your pet can travel. This is because it takes that long for the antibodies to develop and protect your pet. Other countries require a Rabies Neutralising Antibody Titre Test (RNATT) to check the vaccine’s efficacy before your pet can travel.

Rabies Neutralising Antibody Titre Test

The rabies neutralising antibody test measures the effectiveness of the rabies vaccine by testing for antibodies in the pet’s blood sample. When pets receive the rabies vaccine, they produce antibodies as an immune response to the vaccine. The RNAT test measures the level of antibodies in the blood to check if your pet is sufficiently immunised against the virus.

The sample for the test is usually drawn 30 days after the pet is vaccinated. This test is significant for pets travelling from countries where rabies is prevalent to a rabies-free country. An antibody level of 0.5 IU/ml or more suggests that your pet has been adequately protected against the virus.

Many countries have a waiting period of 180 days after the sampling for the rabies titre test to ensure your pet is completely protected before travelling.

The rabies vaccine is very important because no country is entirely immune to the risk of rabies; even pets in rabies-free countries have a small chance of contracting the disease when exposed to wildlife and unvaccinated pets.

Rabies certificate

The rabies certificate is an important document for international pet travel. It is a document that records details of the vaccination received, the date, the microchip number and other pertinent information. It is usually issued by a registered vet in the format required by the exporting country. 

If you are travelling with your pet from Australia, click here to generate a free vaccination certificate for your export permit. 

Compassionate and caring pet travel specialists

The rules for international pet transport are long and complicated; an experienced pet travel partner can help you easily navigate them. Petraveller is Australia’s most caring and comprehensive pet travel agency, with an industry-leading zero-harm rating and an incredible 100% country entry success rate. Reach out to Petraveller for more information on vaccinations and a free pet travel quote