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What are Rabies?

Fatal in all animals, rabies is caused by a lyssavirus that will impact a horse’s neurologic system and salivary glands. In the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are anywhere from 42 to 82 cases of rabies in horses annually. In 2014, forty-four percent of rabies cases were seen in Texas, with twenty percent seen in Oklahoma. Once a horse is exposed to the virus, signs will usually appear within two to six weeks, though there have been longer periods of time until symptoms make themselves apparent. Once the horse is infected, the virus will make its way up the nerves that are close to the site where exposure occurred and to the brain; thus a horse that has been infected through a bite to his face may develop symptoms sooner than a horse who was bitten in one of his limbs.

Transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal through a bite or entrance into an open wound, rabies will lead to death in an infected horse.

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Symptoms of Rabies in Horses

Horses infected with rabies may show a variety of symptoms. Initially symptoms may not be obvious, however, the disease will progress quickly. You may see the following in your horse:

  • Depression
  • Abrupt changes in behavior
  • Lameness or inability to get up
  • Circling and head pressing
  • Recurrent twitching
  • Trouble urinating or pain upon urinating
  • Muscle tremors 
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch and sound
  • Ongoing and painful erection without there being a sexual interest
  • Lack of interest in eating
  • Lack of coordination of muscles; seemingly unaware of their limbs and where they are
  • Paralysis
  • Itchiness
  • Aggression
  • Sudden death

Once a horse shows symptoms it will typically die within five to seven days. A horse that is infected with rabies and showing symptoms of the disease may expose other animals as well as humans to the virus.


There are at least six genotypes of the lyssavirus that causes rabies. Each genotype has different host ranges and pathogenicities. 

In North America there are three strains of rabies that are known by the species that carries the virus. The strains include Arctic fox, raccoon and bat rabies. All three strains have the same ability to cause fatalities in the carrier, other animals and humans.

Causes of Rabies in Horses

Rabies is caused by a virus that is present in the saliva of infected animals. The infected animal will transmit the disease through bites or through their saliva getting into an open cut or mucous membrane of another animal. Rabies can be present in a variety of animals, for example skunks, bats, foxes, raccoons, cats, dogs and livestock. The disease can also be spread from an infected animal to a human.

Diagnosis of Rabies in Horses

Upon noticing symptoms in your horse you will want to contact your veterinarian. It is important to be sure that all other potential causes for the symptoms your horse is experiencing have been ruled out. The only way to confirm a diagnosis of rabies is after the death of the horse through examining his brain with a fluorescent antibody test by the State Public Health Laboratory. Confirming the presence of rabies is important because any person who was exposed to the blood or saliva of the horse is at risk of having contracted the infection. 

Treatment of Rabies in Horses

There is no treatment for rabies; once symptoms occur the disease is fatal. Should your horse show symptoms of infection, it is very important that you minimize his exposure to humans as well as other animals. While there is no treatment for rabies, vaccinating your horse and any other animals can provide protection from becoming infected in the first place.

Should your animal be bitten or have contact with another animal that you suspect is infected with rabies, it is important to immediately contact your veterinarian. Should you or another person be bitten by an animal, you will want to wash the wound with soap and water and take off any clothes that may have been contaminated. Then, call your doctor and go to the closest emergency room.

Recovery of Rabies in Horses

Since rabies is fatal in horses and can be life threatening in people, it is imperative that you have your horse vaccinated against the virus. There will be an initial series of vaccinations, after which annual vaccination will likely be recommended. This will practically eliminate your horse’s risk of rabies infection. Should you have dogs, cats or livestock residing in or near your barn, it is a good idea to vaccinate them as well. It is also recommended that you not handle, feed or bring wild animals into your house.