Information for Veterinarians

Key points

  • Dogs, cats, and ferrets should be vaccinated for rabies according to local laws
  • Veterinary professionals working with susceptible animals should receive rabies prevention-related medical care, called Pre-exposure Prophylaxis
  • Detailed recommendations for animal rabies prevention and control can be found in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control (see link in content below)
Smiling person wearing medical scrubs and a stethoscope petting a black and tan dog under its chin

Clinical signs of rabies in animals

Rabies virus causes acute encephalitis in all warm-blooded hosts, and the outcome of infection is nearly always fatal. Early signs include:

  • Abnormal behavior
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Vomiting and anorexia
  • Ataxia
  • Weakness
  • Self-mutilation
  • Rapid progression to cerebral and cranial nerve dysfunction
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Excessive salivation
  • Aggression

U.S. licensed rabies vaccines for animals

Animal rabies vaccines should only be administered by a veterinarian or under veterinary supervision, in compliance with local laws. A list of licensed and marketed animal vaccines is available in the Animal Rabies Compendium.

An animal is only considered immunized 28 days after initial vaccination. Animals with any vaccination history are considered vaccinated immediately after a booster, even if the animal was overdue for its vaccine.

Vaccination schedule

Vaccine schedules vary by product and state; local laws may also influence the timing for rabies vaccine schedules. Consult with local health officials to ensure your practices comply with regulations. Most dogs, cats, and ferrets should not be vaccinated before 3 months (12 weeks) of age, as the response to vaccination is not as strong in young animals.

Confined animals

  • Wild Animals: No parenteral vaccines are licensed for wild animals.
  • Exhibits and Zoos: The Animal Rabies Compendium recommends off-label vaccination for high-risk and endangered animals, but local and state health officials manage rabies exposure on a case-by-case basis.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis for veterinary professionals

Veterinarians and other veterinary professionals working with susceptible animals, particularly in endemic areas, should receive rabies pre-exposure prophylaxis. Zoo staff should receive pre-exposure prophylaxis if they work with susceptible species, especially those without a licensed vaccine.

Managing an animal that has bitten a person

Dogs, cats and ferrets

Animals showing clinical signs consistent with rabies should be immediately euthanized and tested.

Rabies virus can be present in the saliva of infected dogs, cats, and ferrets during illness and even several days before clinical signs develop. A healthy dog, cat, or ferret suspected of rabies that exposes a person or pet should be confined and observed for 10 days post-bite in coordination with public health authorities. Vaccination should be avoided during the observation period to avoid confusing adverse vaccine reactions with rabies clinical signs.

If signs of illness develop during the 10 days following the bite (or other exposure), immediately report the situation to the local health department. If rabies is suspected, euthanize the animal and contact public health officials to coordinate testing at an approved rabies laboratory. Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used if any procedure may expose people to saliva or nervous tissues. Standard PPE when caring for or euthanizing an animal suspected to have rabies includes:

  • Latex or Nitrile gloves
  • Face covering (e.g. shield)
  • Eye covering (e.g. glasses)
  • Smock or lab coat
  • Mask (N95 preferred)

Stray animals that have bitten a person and are suspected of having rabies should be euthanized and tested right away to inform the bite victim's medical treatment. These animals may also undergo 10-day observation if euthanasia is not preferred, particularly if there is the possibility to re-home the animal.

Although rare, rabies vaccine failures in animals do occur. Therefore, even animals with a history of vaccination should be observed for 10 days if they bite a person.

Other animals

Report bites from other animals to the local health department. The management of exposures will depend on the species, bite circumstances, rabies epidemiology in the area, the animal's health history, and potential rabies exposure. Vaccination history may not preclude euthanasia and testing.

For detailed recommendations, refer to the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control.

Caring for a client’s animal exposed to rabies

Rabies exposures in pets and livestock may not always be recognized by their owners and caretakers. The severity of the exposure and a risk assessment of the situation should be conducted by an official familiar with rabies. Being close to a suspected rabid animal is not considered exposure. However, rabid animals found near free-ranging pets and livestock may require an assessment by public health officials.

Animals up to date on rabies vaccines

Vaccinated dogs, cats and ferrets

If exposed to rabies, these animals should receive immediate booster vaccination, be kept under owner supervision, and be monitored for signs of rabies for 45 days. Any signs of illness observed during this period should be reported to public health officials.

If clinical signs are suggestive of rabies, the animal should be euthanized and submitted for rabies testing.

Vaccinated livestock

For vaccinated livestock exposed to rabies, it is recommended to revaccinate them and then observe for 45 days. In this event, please consult with public health officials to determine the next steps needed to contain the spread of rabies.

When handling carcasses or uncooked tissues from exposed animals, which pose a low risk of rabies, use appropriate PPE to prevent direct contact with saliva or nervous tissues. Authorities, such as public health departments, state meat inspectors, and/or the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service should be notified of rabies cases involving animals intended for consumption.

Off-label vaccinations

Animals vaccinated off-label may not respond to the rabies vaccine as effectively as those for which the vaccine was developed.

In general, animals exposed to rabies and vaccinated off-label should be euthanized. In certain situations, euthanasia may be avoided or delayed, including:

  • Animals held in USDA-licensed research facilities or accredited zoos
  • High-value or endangered species
  • Animals for which data suggests off-label vaccination is effective
  • Management of animals vaccinated off-label and exposed to rabies should be conducted on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with public health or animal health officials

Animals overdue for rabies vaccination

Dogs, cats and ferrets

Animals who have rabies exposure, have been vaccinated with a U.S. licensed rabies vaccine, and are overdue for their vaccination should be assessed on a case-by-case basis by public health and animal health officials to determine the proper course of action. Generally, these animals can be given a booster vaccination and managed the same as animals that are current on their rabies vaccination; however, the duration of vaccine lapse and severity of the exposure can influence how to manage these animals.

Post-serological monitoring can be conducted to either confirm the vaccination status of an animal without appropriate records or to ensure that an exposed animal has mounted an adequate immune response to vaccination. Demonstration of successful antibody response to vaccination may support a decision to manage an animal the same as one that is up to date on its rabies vaccines.

Animals never vaccinated against rabies

Dogs, cats and ferrets

Following rabies exposure, unvaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets should be euthanized since no licensed biologics can ensure that they do not develop rabies. If the owner declines, dogs and cats need a strict 4-month quarantine, and ferrets need strict 6-month quarantine. They also need immediate rabies vaccination. Demonstrating an adequate serological response to vaccination may result in health officials reducing the quarantine period. Quarantine should be conducted in a secure facility that ensures people and other animals do not become exposed.


Unvaccinated livestock should be euthanized or kept under strict quarantine for 4 - 6 months after a rabies exposure. Unvaccinated livestock with a high-risk exposure to rabies should not be sold and products from these animals (meat, milk) should not be consumed during this quarantine period.

Other mammals

Other mammals should be euthanized immediately.