Rabies: how to spot and report the disease in animals

How to spot rabies, what to do if you suspect it and measures to prevent its spread.

Applies to England, Scotland and Wales

Rabies affects all mammals (warm blooded animals with backbones that produce milk and have fur or hair) including dogs and humans.

Rabies was eradicated from all UK animals except bats in 1922. The last case in an imported animal outside of quarantine was in 1970.

Rabies is a notifiable animal disease. If you suspect it you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301. In Wales, contact 0300 303 8268. In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office. Failure to do so is an offence.

How to spot rabies

Early clinical signs of rabies include:

  • behaviour changes - friendly animals may become cautious, shy animals may become bold
  • in dogs, a tendency to excessively seek attention and lick owners
  • 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 jaw and more saliva than normal produced
  • 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 a mammal that you own is bitten or scratched by a bat, or another animal that may be rabid, consult a vet.

How rabies is spread

Rabies is present in the saliva of infected animals and is usually spread by the bite of an infected animal.

Rabid saliva can also infect open wounds or mucous membranes such as the nostrils, mouth and lips, eyelids and ears.

Rabies webinar for veterinary professionals

Many Ukrainian people are fleeing their homes and seeking safety and assistance in the UK, sometimes bringing their pets with them.

Rabies is present in Ukraine, so there is a small risk that unvaccinated pets could introduce rabies into the UK. This mainly relates to cats and dogs.

Defra’s rabies webinar for veterinary professionals gives information on:

  • the current emergency situation
  • the clinical signs of rabies
  • how to report a suspected case
  • what happens at the lab
  • the control measures that are in place
  • public health aspects of the disease

Rabies in bats

Although rabies has been eradicated from the UK, a strain of the disease continues to be present in bats in this country.

Bat rabies, or European bat lyssavirus is very rare among bats in the UK. But if you handle bats regularly you should be vaccinated as a precaution.

If you have not been vaccinated against the disease:

  • assume that all bats are possible carriers of bat rabies
  • avoid touching bats, living or dead, whenever possible
  • if you must touch a bat, wear thick gloves to avoid being bitten or scratched

Risk to humans from rabies

You may have been exposed to rabies, if you are bitten or scratched by:

  • a bat in the UK
  • any mammal in countries where rabies is present in other animals

If there is a risk you have been exposed to the disease you should:

  • wash your wound thoroughly with soap and water
  • disinfect the wound
  • immediately contact a doctor for treatment

The disease is fatal for humans once signs of the disease appear. It can only be prevented if you are treated soon after exposure.

Read the NHS guide to rabies for more information about the disease in humans.

Preventing and controlling rabies

Preventing rabies

If you are bringing an animal into the UK you must follow these requirements for pet travel.

If you suspect rabies

Do not approach live animals that you think may be rabid.

Do not touch dead animals that may have had the disease.

Instead you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301, so the animal can be tested.

If rabies is confirmed

If rabies is confirmed the outbreak will be controlled in line with the rabies control strategy.

Further information on prevention and control

Controls to prevent disease

What happens when a notifiable disease is suspected or confirmed

Published 26 August 2014
Last updated 5 July 2022 + show all updates
  1. Defra has created a webinar about rabies for veterinary professionals in response to the emergency situation in Ukraine.

  2. Contact details for reporting notifiable disease updated.

  3. Added a link to the latest rabies control strategy.

  4. AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

  5. First published.