Rabies: how to spot and report the disease

Advice on what to do if you suspect there is an outbreak of this infectious disease.

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Rabies is a fatal viral disease of the nervous system caused by a rhabdovirus which can affect all mammals including humans. 

Latest situation: The UK is currently free of terrestrial animal rabies.

Rabies is widely distributed across the globe, present on all continents and endemic in most African and Asian countries.

Clinical signs

Early clinical signs of rabies include:

  • behaviour changes - friendly animals may become cautious, shy animals may become bold
  • hypersensitivity to noise or light

This can be followed by:

  • increased aggression - dogs may try to break free and attack objects, animals and handlers
  • eyes taking on a staring expression
  • drooping lower jar and more saliva than normal produced - appears like something is stuck in the throat
  • itching
  • thirst

The final stages of rabies include:

  • weak muscles, especially legs and tail
  • difficulty swallowing
  • drooping eyelids
  • saliva frothing at the mouth
  • general paralysis followed by convulsions and coma before death

Some animals will show no signs at all, so laboratory tests are required to confirm rabies.

If you suspect signs of any notifiable diseases, you must immediately notify your Scotland: field service local office at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). Failure to do so is an offence. 

How rabies is spread

The virus is usually spread through contact with saliva via the bite of an infected animal, but can be transmitted through an open wound or a mucous membrane such as those in the mouth, nasal cavity or eyes.

Our island status and the success of wildlife rabies control programmes in Europe in recent years, makes it unlikely that rabies will be introduced through natural wildlife spread. There are strict legal controls on the entry of animals into the UK aimed at preventing the introduction of rabies. Pet cats, dogs and ferrets entering the UK are subject to rules relating to the movement of pets. Consequently, the largest risk for rabies entering the UK would be through an infected animal imported into the country illegally.

Human health implications

Rabies can affect humans. There is a vaccine for people at risk of being infected.

Disease control

The rabies control strategy for Great Britain sets out the arrangements in place to support the effective management of an outbreak of rabies, in order to prevent the disease becoming endemic and ensuring the continuation of rabies free status in Scotland.


Biosecurity is about being aware of the ways disease can spread and taking every practical measure to minimise the risk of disease spreading. The advice details practical things you can do on your farm to help prevent the introduction and spread of rabies to and from your animals.

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