Much of the information below is copied from or a paraphrase of the most recently published Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2011.
Rabies has one of the highest case-fatality ratios of any infectious disease. (Personally, I do not know of any other disease that approaches the 100% fatality rate of rabies.)
Rabies is a fatal viral zoonosis (disease transferred from animals to people) and still remains a serious public health problem. It is believed that all mammals are susceptible to rabies infection but in a real life situation it is very unlikely that rabies will occur in many of the mammalian species. Rabies is an acute, progressive encephalitis caused by a lyssavirus. In the United States there are multiple variants (strains) of the rabies virus but the main carriers of the disease in the United States are dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats.
Rabies is spread by salivary contact with broken skin or mucous membranes: - usually a bite wound. The incubation period in the domestic species is usually 3-12 weeks but can range from only a few days up to six months. Most infected individuals are capable of shedding the virus (transmitting the disease) a few days before clinical signs occur. Contagion remains throughout the course of the disease and for hours after death of the infected mammal. There are no known rabies anti-viral drugs. Death usually has occurred within ten days of the onset of clinical signs.
Rabies presents with dramatic signs of encephalitis, salivation, incoordination, personality changes, distinct change in the tone of the voice (bark, growl, meow), dysphagia, paralysis, and seizures; but, clinical signs do not constitute a diagnosis. Diagnosis of rabies is based upon the laboratory isolation of the rabies virus or by a positive direct fluorescent antibody test performed on central nervous tissue. There is no ante-mortem test for rabies.
Humans can be vaccinated against rabies but it is very expensive and is restricted to high risk individuals (which currently does not include practicing veterinarians and their staff). There is no test to prove that a vaccinated human is actually immune to the disease if he/she is actually exposed to the disease.
There are multiple vaccines for use in veterinary medicine. No vaccine is approved for use in all of the domestic species. No vaccine provides 100% protection of all vaccinated individuals.
Over the period of the last several years, more cats have been diagnosed with rabies than dogs.
Dogs, cats, and ferrets that have never been vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately. If the owner is unwilling to euthanize, the animal should be placed in strict isolation for six months. This applies to animals that have been in a fight and have been bitten by an unavailable or unknown animal. Vaccinated animals that are known to have been exposed to rabies or have been bitten by an unavailable or unknown animal should be immediately revaccinated and kept under the owner’s control and closely observed for 45 days.
Regardless of vaccination status, a healthy dog, cat, or ferret that potentially exposes a person through a bite should be confined and observed daily for ten days from the time of human exposure. If the biting animal were actually carrying rabies at the time of the bite, that animal will be clinically ill of or likely dead of rabies within the ten day period of time.
Persons bitten by an unknown/strange/stray animal, persons believed to have been exposed to rabies, and persons bitten by their own, unvaccinated pet should contact their physician. Veterinarians and veterinary staff are legally prevented from making recommendations to humans regarding human exposure to rabies.
Rabies is nearly 100% fatal and those very few that do survive do not return to a 100% normal status.
VACCINATE YOUR PETS AGAINST RABIES !!!!!!