There are two situations when animals may be quarantined because of rabies concerns:
- After biting a person.
- After potentially being exposed to a rabid animal.
The time frame for quarantine in these two situations is quite different because of what the quarantine is meant to accomplish.
Animals that have bitten someone are quarantined for 10 days under observation to see if they develop signs of rabies. Most animals that bite do not have rabies, and this is the easiest way of determining whether the animal could have potentially transmitted rabies by way of the bite. If an animal was rabid and infectious at the time of biting, it would die from the disease within 10 days. Animals can only transmit rabies virus after it has reached the brain and started to spread outwards via nerves – it gets into saliva by working its way down nerves from the brain to the salivary glands. Once an animal gets to that stage of disease, they die quickly. So, if the animal is still alive after 10 days, it was not rabid at the time of the bite. Quarantine is important so that it can be clearly proven one way or the other whether the animal was rabid. If the biting animal was not quarantined and ran away, the recommendation would be to err on the side of caution and treat anyone bitten as if they’d been exposed… but we want to avoid that if at all possible.
The second type of quarantine (for a potentially exposed animal) is based on less solid evidence. The idea in these cases is to keep the potentially exposed animal isolated while waiting to see if it develops signs of rabies, because there is no other reliable test for rabies in a live animal. For example, if an unvaccinated dog gets into a fight with a rabid raccoon, it would be considered potentially exposed. It would be quarantined (or immediately euthanized… the other option) and monitored to see if it develops signs of rabies. The length of quarantine for non-vaccinated dogs is usually 6 months, but this may vary by region. This helps reduce further rabies transmission by ensuring that a dog that develops rabies during the quarantine period is not roaming at large and able to infect people or other animals. One weakness of this approach is the incubation period of rabies, which can be very long. There is not a lot of objective research on which to base the 6 month time frame (unlike the 10 day quarantine described above). After 6 months, it’s very unlikely the dog will develop rabies, but we can never say it’s 100% because of the rare cases of rabies in humans with extremely long incubation periods. In reality, it’s likely that the vast majority of animals that are exposed will develop rabies before 6 months, so it’s a reasonable time frame. Would it be better to use 4 or 8 months, or something else? Possibly, we just don’t know.
The easiest ways to avoid hassles associated with rabies quarantine are:
- Prevent bites. If your pet is trained and observed properly, it’s unlikely to bite anyone, so the 10-day post-bite quarantine shouldn’t be an issue.
- Vaccinate your pet. Properly vaccinated pets are not subject to the same long, strict quarantine (although a shorter period of isolation (often at home) is usually still required).
More information about rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.