World Rabies and dog bite prevention month with Animal Anti-Cruelty League.

You may have recently watched the Carte Blanche expose on the two children who died horrific deaths in KwaZulu-Natal from Rabies. The one child was in a rural area and died after being bitten by an infected dog. The other child was on holiday and was bitten by a resident feral cat where they were staying.

The fact is that rabies is a disease that is still relevant and able to touch all our lives, even in our urban life. It is fully preventable, and all dogs and cats should be vaccinated at 3months of age followed by a booster between one and nine months later, with a booster vaccine given every three years according to the Animal Diseases Act, 1984 (Act No.35 of 1984).

But the most important part of rabies is the human factor with children under 15 years of age being most at risk due to their close contact with pets, especially dogs, often resulting in multiple bites to the face and head. These children are often living in poor rural areas with unvaccinated pets and little access to healthcare facilities. If the correct post-exposure treatment is sought and given immediately following exposure, there is a 100% chance of survival. If not, once infected, symptoms can take a few weeks to a few years to develop depending on how virulent the strain was, the quantity of virus inoculated and how close the bite site was to the central nervous system. Symptoms are non-specific and may include headaches or fever, then nervous signs such as agitation, sleepiness or confusion. Once these symptoms develop though, death usually occurs within a few weeks. It is the only infectious disease with a 100% mortality rate.

Approximately 55 000 people a year die of rabies, mostly in Africa and Asia. Rabies is a disease that targets the brain and while all warm- blooded animals are vulnerable to infection, only mammals (and humans) can act as reservoirs for the disease and transmit it. In South Africa, the domestic dog is the main animal host for the disease, with the black backed jackal, bat eared fox and mongoose the main wildlife hosts. Rabies is carried in the saliva of infected animals, and as recent cases have shown, does not only get transmitted through bites, but also through scratches, licks on broken skin and rarely when the mucous membranes of the eyes or lips are licked. In very rare cases, corneal transplantation has been proved to be a cause of infection.

Symptoms in infected animals are usually focused on behavioural changes but may initially be non-specific. Wild animals are often suddenly tame showing no fear of humans. Similarly, friendly dogs become snappy or difficult dogs become docile. Some animals may show apprehension, nervousness, solitude or a variable fever. They may lick constantly at the bite wound site. Following this the two most common forms of the disease are furious and dumb (paralytic). In the furious form, animals are aggressive, snap at imaginary objects and often attack inanimate objects. They become disorientated and develop generalised seizures and die quickly once these symptoms start. In the dumb form, animals may become partially paralysed, lose the ability to swallow or close their mouth (thus drooling with an open jaw) Breathing may be difficult and often there is a choking sound. The paralysis progresses to coma and death. Cats often display erratic behaviour with a wild or blank look in their eyes, become incoordinated, may bite without releasing their grip, run continuously leading to death from exhaustion or develop the paralytic form. Increased vocalisation is noticeable.

Any animal health care workers (veterinarians, veterinary nurses, kennel cleaners, inspectors, dog groomers, animal behaviourists, foster homes etc.) or those people who have contact with dogs on a regular basis MUST be vaccinated regularly.

Many children are growing up in isolated complexes with no exposure to animals.  It is therefore, our responsibility as parents and educators, to ensure that children (but non-pet owning adults as well), are taught how to approach a dog correctly:

  • First ask permission from the owner to touch the dog;
  • Should a dog allow you to touch him, do so gently;
  • Don’t approach a dog you don’t know;
  • A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly;
  • Look for warning signs like: growling, snarling, baring teeth, a tense body, stiff tail and pulled back ears.
  • Don’t put your face close to a dog’s face. Dogs don’t really like hugs and kisses;
  • Don’t smile at dogs. Aggressive dogs see you baring your teeth for a fight;
  • Never tease a dog;
  • Leave a mommy dog alone that is busy caring for her puppies;
  • Never climb on dogs;
  • Never sneak up on a sleeping dog and don’t touch a dog without them seeing you first;
  • Don’t bother a dog who is busy eating or chewing his toys;

If you are confronted by a strange or aggressive dog, do keep your hands by your side, stand very still and try to back away slowly. Do not run away, scream or panic or make eye contact. If you are attacked, try to redirect the dog’s attention and put something in between you like a jacket or bag. If you fall, roll into a ball, cover your neck and ears with your hands and remain motionless.

It is advisable not to pick up stray animals as their vaccination and disease status is unknown. If you are bitten or scratched by one though, immediately wash the wound thoroughly with water and betadine or chlorhexidine for 5-10minutes, encouraging bleeding. Visit a doctor immediately after who will assess the risk asking pertinent questions about the exposure and follow correct post-exposure prophylaxis. DO NOT DELAY THIS. A human death, as a result of rabies, is viewed as a health system failure as it could have been prevented.

The only way to confirm rabies in an animal where there is little, or no history is to euthanase it and submit its brain tissue for specific antibody testing. If a suspicious animal cannot be euthanased, it must be caged for 10 days where it usually dies from the disease. Rabies is a notifiable disease which means that the State Veterinarian must be called and get involved. Vaccinating an infected animal does not stop the disease nor is post exposure treatment recommended in animals.

Report the attack to the police as well, in order to prevent the dog attacking anyone else. Within 24hrs, open a case with the SAPS under the Animal Matters Amendment Act No.42 of 1993. Sue via a lawyer if the dog owner is not prepared to pay for medical expenses.

The only way to effectively control this disease is through regular vaccination of the entire pet population. It is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any pet owner to ensure their pet is healthy (sterilised, vaccinated, dewormed and treated for parasites), abiding by the laws in place (rabies vaccination is required by law), which safeguards the community’s health too.

For more information visit

For further information contact

Marketing Manager for AACL Jhb – Carren Nickloes

011 435 0672

AUTHOR: Sr Cindy-Lee Price

General Manager: Animal Anti-Cruelty League – Johannesburg