Headlines can sometimes be very misleading. The title of this post is from a news article that implies that rabies is a foodborne disease. The first sentence of the article states:

"A new study has detailed how two people in Asia contracted rabies after eating dog or cat meat."

This is a prime example of why it is so important to read more than just the first few sentences of any article, and ideally find the original source of the information. The article refers to a paper in PLoS Medicine. The paper describes two cases of rabies in men from Hanoi, in Vietnam. One had no known history of an animal bite or other rabies exposure, while the other had been bitten a month before becoming sick by a non-rabid dog (the dog was still healthy when the man developed rabies – if the dog had been rabid at the time of the bite it would have died within two weeks). Both patients had butchered and eaten either a dog or cat, including the brain, within 3-8 weeks of becoming sick.

  • The first patient had butchered and eaten a dog that had been killed in a traffic accident. He took out the dog’s teeth before butchering it, thinking that this would protect him if the dog had rabies (because rabies is so often associated with bites, he likely didn’t realize the virus is actually in the saliva and brain tissue).  The skull was opened to remove the brain.  The man wore work gloves, and didn’t report any injuries during butchering.  All parts of the dog that were eaten were cooked first.  No one else that ate any part of the dog got sick.
  • The second patient had butchered and eaten a sick cat that had been acting abnormal for a few days. Again, all parts of the cat that were eaten were cooked first, and no one else that ate any part of the cat got sick.  However, the man who developed rabies had prepared the cat’s brain for cooking using his bare hands.

In both cases, the affected people were exposed to animals that were sick (cat) or may have been sick (dog hit by car). Only the people who butchered the animals got rabies, while no one else who ate the animals got sick. It is most likely that the two men were exposed to rabies virus during butchering, through contact of infected nervous tissue (e.g. brain) with any tiny bit of broken skin, or even possibly the eyes, nose or mouth, before the tissue was cooked.  In Vietnam, butchering  (not eating) dogs is a recognized risk factor for developing rabies.  It is extremely unlikely that eating cooked meat from a rabid animal would result in transmission of rabies to a person.