Rabies – The stuff of horror movies and why you should vaccinate

    Photo from movieweb.com

    WHILE the word ‘rabies’ may evoke blood-curdling images of a vicious animal, enraged and frothing at the mouth, reminiscent of Stephen King’s 1981 psychological horror novel, ‘Cujo,’ it’s important to bear in mind that the rabid St Bernard, who struck spine-chilling fear into the hearts of horror fans back in the 80s, started out as a loving and loyal family pet.

    “It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog,” writes Stephen King in the closing chapter of the book. “He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor…”

    In the story, the mild-mannered St Bernard evolves into a ferocious bloodthirsty beast after contracting the deadly rabies virus through a bite on the nose from an infected bat.

    This may very well be the stuff of horror movies, but King, in his masterful way of delving into the readers’ minds and conjuring up the worst fears and phobias of the human psyche, strikes a chord in this story that hits home and rings true to a certain degree, especially in the wake of the alarming outbreak of the deadly virus in AbaQulusi earlier this year.

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    Aside from the obvious signs of rabies in animals such as the sick, crazed or vicious appearance, frothing at the mouth and snarling furiously like a “mad dog” as the saying goes, these are not the only symptoms of the fatal affliction that is the cause of about six to seven hundred animal deaths a year in South Africa alone. Rabies is always fatal once symptoms appear. Animals who have been infected with the rabies virus may also appear overly friendly, docile, or confused. They may even appear completely normal. Once the infection occurs, the virus grows in muscle tissue and may go undetected for several days or months. During this incubation period, the animal appears healthy and shows no sign of infection.

    The first symptoms of rabies, in the Prodromal Phase, tend to be subtle. They usually last two to three days and include the following: Change in tone of the dog’s bark, chewing at the bite site, fever, loss of appetite and subtle changes in behaviour.

    The second phase of infection, known as the furious phase or ‘mad dog syndrome,’ usually lasts two to four days and not all rabid animals experience it. Some animals enter immediately into the final paralytic phase. They are sometimes said to have paralytic rabies. Animals that spend most of their diseased state in the furious phase are referred to as having furious rabies. They may show the following signs: craving to eat anything, including inedible objects, constant growling and barking, dilated pupils, disorientation, erratic behaviour, episodes of aggression, facial expression showing anxiety and hyper-alertness, irritability, restlessness, roaming, seizures, trembling and muscle incoordination.

    Image result for cujo, death

    In the third and final phase of infection, known as the Paralytic Phase, which usually lasts for two to four days, initial symptoms may include the following: Appearance of choking, dropping of the lower jaw (in dogs), inability to swallow, leading to drooling and foaming of saliva, and paralysis of the jaw, throat, and chewing muscles. Paralysis subsequently spreads to other parts of the body, the animal becomes depressed, rapidly enters a coma and dies.

    According to Carel Burger, State Veterinary official, there have been no further outbreaks since the last “scary episode” which took place earlier this year and led to several family pets being euthanised.

    “The annual vaccination campaign will take place in the first week of October for Vryheid’s surrounding areas,” states Burger, “and on October 6 and 7 for Vryheid.”

    Photo: IOL

    Residents and responsible pet owners are urged to ensure that all pets are vaccinated against this deadly virus annually.

    To avoid being bitten and potentially exposed to rabies, avoid approaching strange animals. Do not handle downed bats and report bites to the proper officials, do not feed wildlife and do not handle sick, injured or dead animals.


    The contact number for the State Veterinarian is 034 981 4416 and Vryheid SPCA can be reached on 034 980 8888.

    Elaine Rodway

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