Diagnosis of Rabies

Although the behavioral symptoms of rabies are classic, a diagnosis based solely on the symptoms can be difficult because classic signs are similar to those of other diseases, conditions, and complications. The inability to swallow, for example, could be caused by an object lodged in the throat, many factors can trigger aggressive, strange behavior, and animals often are easily provoked when injured.

The only way to be 100 percent sure that an animal is rabid is to perform a direct fluorescent antibody test (dFA) on brain tissue—which requires that the animal dies or is euthanized. This is the most rapid and reliable test for rabies and it has been used for more than 50 years.

The dFA test is based on the principle that infected animals have rabies virus antigen (a protein) in brain tissue that reacts to anti-rabies antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system to fight disease and infection). The test involves inserting fluorescently-labeled anti-rabies antibody molecules into the brain tissue, which bind to the rabies virus antigens and give off a bright glow when viewed through a special fluorescent microscope. A dFA test can also detect the presence of rabies antigens in the skin.

Tests that do not require euthanasia can be used to examine serum, spinal fluid, and saliva, but none of them can rule out rabies with 100 percent certainty. These tests are used only in humans and animals that cannot be euthanized.

Pets suspected of having rabies must be diagnosed as early as possible, especially if people have been exposed to the animal. Rabies is a fatal disease. Humans who have been exposed can be treated with safe post-exposure prophylaxis, but only if it is administered before the person begins showing symptoms.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Mar 2001

Last Modified: 20 Feb 2015