Rabies is a viral disease that is transmitted from animals to humans. When symptoms appear, and without immediate treatment, rabies is fatal in 100% of cases. It can be avoided thanks to vaccination. In Belgium, the main threat still comes from the illegal importation of dogs from infected countries.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Rabies causes encephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and the spinal cord) which changes the function of the nervous system. 

It can present in the form of paralytic rabies (30% of cases) or furious rabies.

In both cases, the symptoms can appear one week or a number of years after exposure:

  • pathological fear of draughts of air (aerophobia) 
  • pathological fear of water (hydrophobia) 
  • fever
  • unusual or unexplained pains and/or paraesthesia (tingling, itching, burning sensation) at the site of the wound. 

The time it takes for the symptoms to appear (incubation period) can last from one week to 3 months, and even over 1 year after infection.

Once the symptoms appear, the rabies is full-blown and the outcome is always fatal.

Rabies in its ‘paralytic’ form

Rabies in its ‘paralytic’ form applies to 30% of cases:

  • uncoordinated movements 
  • progressive paralysis of the limbs
  • feeling scared
  • refusing to eat.

The evolution is less spectacular and generally longer than in the case of furious rabies.

Rabies in its ‘furious’ form

  • Hyperactivity
  • (Sexual) arousal
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Aggressiveness
  • Tendency to bite
  • Increased production of saliva 

When should you consult a veterinarian?

A vet must be called urgently and all contact with the animal avoided if it shows signs of being nervous and if:

  • its vaccinations are not up to date and
  • it has come into contact with a bat or 
  • has come back (or been brought back) from a trip.

An animal that presents with suspected rabies symptoms is put down (in most cases) or put into quarantine. If the animal survives the quarantine period, rabies can be excluded given that the illness is always fatal.

When should a doctor be called?

A doctor should be called urgently if you have been in contact with a suspected rabid animal or a bat; and in particular in the following cases:

  • bite or deep scratch
  • a scratch 
  • if a wound has been licked
  • contact with a wound.


Sciensano provides epidemiological surveillance of rabies in Belgium and takes responsibility for diagnosis and treatment following exposure. It monitors the efficacy of vaccines against rabies. The Belgian Official Medicines Control Laboratory (OMCL) of Sciensano, together with the European OMCL network, is responsible for the quality control of the rabies vaccine prior to marketing.

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