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Equine Health Resource

Rabies

Synonyms: Hydrophobia, Lyssa

Rabies is a rapidly fatal brain disease that horses usually acquire after being bitten by an infected animal (bat, skunk, raccoon, coyote, fox, wolf, dog). Signs of this disease can vary widely. The disease can only be definitively diagnosed after death. Even a sign as unlikely as a mysterious lameness can result from a rabies infection.

Signs of rabies can be divided into a “furious/mad dog” form and a “paralytic/dumb” form. The furious form is the classic fearless, aggressive attitude popularized in the media (rolling, biting, striking). In the paralytic form, a horse may have difficulty swallowing or salivate excessively.

Horses that are suffering from severe undiagnosed brain disease that have signs compatible with this disease may need to be euthanized and rabies diagnostics run immediately.

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transferred from an infected horse to humans. It is one of the few equine diseases that is easily transmitted from an infected horse to humans. It is nearly 100% fatal in horses and people. For this reason, always take care to avoid human exposure if you suspect that your horse has this disease. ALWAYS wear latex gloves when handling horse’s mouths because exposure to humans is generally through the virus-infected saliva.

Theoretically, the virus needs to gain exposure to the human bloodstream through a cut or open wound, but in reality that might not be required. If you have been exposed to a horse with (or suspected of having) rabies you should contact your doctor immediately.

Rabies is a reportable disease, meaning that if a horse has or is suspected of having this disease, vets are required to report it to agricultural authorities (usually the State Veterinarian). These authorities may investigate the case as part of a larger effort to monitor equine health and coordinate with other States and the USDA APHIS in preventing the spread of illness or disease on a national and international level.

I Might ObserveRelated Observations

Fever, Rectal Temperature Greater than 101.5 (in Adult)
Cannot Swallow, Difficulty Swallowing
Rolling (in Adult)
Seems Dazed or Confused
Pupils Seem Large or Dilated
Incontinence, Urine Dribbling or Dripping
Change in Personality, Strange Behavior
Not Drinking Water, Difficulty Drinking or Not Thirsty
Seizures or Convulsions (in Adult)
Depressed, Dull, Sick or Lethargic
Pawing
Agitated, Anxious, Nervous or Stressed
Lameness, Generally
Urination, Frequent & Small Amounts of Urine
Not Urinating Enough
Lying Down & Paddling
Seizures or Convulsions (in Adult)
Sudden Collapse or Apparent Loss of Consciousness
Slobbering, Drooling or Salivating
Head Tilted or Cocked to Side
Irritability, Moodiness, or Aggression Toward People
Lameness, Severe, Cannot Support Weight on Limb
Hind-End Leans or Falls to One Side, One Hind Limb Seems Weak
Drooping Lip, Face or Muzzle
Cannot Seem to Get Up, Lying Down, Seems Aware
Lying Down More Than Normal, or Getting Up & Down
Not Eating, Loss of Appetite, Not Hungry
Head in Corner or Against Wall, Head Pressing
Local Muscle Twitching
Horse Found Dead, Recently Seemed Healthy
Striking with Front Feet
Unconscious, Lying Down & Not Responsive
Crab Walking or Uneven Tracking
Obvious Stumbling or Tripping, Even when Not Under Saddle
Struggles to Rise, Gets up with Difficulty
Noticeably Wobbly or Weak
Urination, Straining or Difficulty
Urine Stream Slow or Weak
Abdominal Pain, Colic Signs
Aggressive or Stallion-Like Behavior in Mare
Recurrent Colic Episodes without a Diagnosis
Abnormal Foot or Limb Placement, at Rest
Eye is Making Abnormal Rapid & Jerky Movements
Circling Compulsively in One Direction
Knuckling Over or Rolling Over on a Fetlock
Circling, Pacing or Weaving in Stall
Leaning Against Stall Wall or Fence
Muscle Tone Poor, Muscles Seem Soft
Hind Limb Bows Outward at Hock When Walking
Mare in Abdominal Pain (Colic), Soon after Foaling

QUESTIONS TO ASK MY VET

  • Why do you think my horse has rabies and not something else?
  • Should I be concerned about myself, my other horses & animals too?
  • PREVENTION

    Good facilities management to decrease the population of wildlife carriers is recommended. Dispose of kitchen, barn and household waste, so as not to attract wildlife. Keep grain in closed containers.

    Vaccinate your horse and your other pets for rabies. Rabies vaccine is recommended as one of the "core" vaccines by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

    RELATED REFERENCES

    Lavoie JP, Hinchcliff KW eds. Blackwell's 5 Minute Vet Consult: Equine. 2nd Ed. Ames: Wiley Blackwell 2008.Higgins AJ, Snyder JR eds. The Equine Manual. 2nd Ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier Saunders 2006.

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