What Are the Symptoms of Rabies in Horses?

Rabies in equines isn't common, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't vaccinate your horse against this always deadly disease. Horses catch rabies from the bite of an infected animal, often a raccoon or skunk. Less than 100 cases are reported annually in the United States, according to Merck Animal Health. Because it's fatal and transmissible to humans, it is a core vaccine for all equines. A rabies vaccination must be administered by a licensed veterinarian.

Many of the symptoms of rabies are vague, at least initially, and often mistaken for something far less serious. Merck Animal Health quotes veterinarians as saying, "Rabies can look like anything."

Warnings

  • There's no way to definitely diagnose rabies in horses until the animal is dead. If rabies is suspected, the veterinarian must remove the horse's head and send it a state laboratory for testing. If there's any possibility a horse has rabies, do not shoot it in the head to put it out of its misery.

Not Quite Right

Every horse person know when an equine is NQR -- "not quite right." In the early stages of the disease, a horse may seem depressed and perhaps spike a low fever. That can result from a host of diseases, and the last one an owner -- and probably a veterinarian -- will consider is rabies. That's until the more obvious symptoms occur a day or so later. The usual time period from the onset of symptoms to death is three to five days.

Behavioral Changes

As the disease progresses, most affected horses experience behavioral changes. Generally calm animals may become nervous, irritable or dangerously aggressive. Call your vet immediately if your horse develops any sudden personality change.

Neurological Problems

Neurological symptoms in rabid horses include:

  • difficulty walking or staying upright
  • seizures
  • general lack of coordination
  • and paralysis.

Other Symptoms

Rabies can mimic the signs of colic, with the horse no longer interested in eating and apparently experiencing abdominal pain. Clues that you aren't dealing with colic include:

  • hypersalivation
  • urinary incontinence
  • and gnawing at the bite site.

Tips

  • Any person exposed to the horse once the animal becomes symptomatic must undergo a series of four post-exposure rabies vaccine injections, along with one injection of human rabies immune globulin. Veterinarians and others who have had pre-exposure injections need only two additional shots.

Author

Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.