Common side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs include low fever, fatigue, and localized swelling at the site of the injection.
Rare, but serious, side effects can occur. This includes hives, minor swelling (especially around the face), acute onset of vomiting and/or diarrhea, and breathing changes.
This post starts with 11 side-effects of the rabies vaccine in dogs, and also discusses the pros and cons of vaccinations in general.
As dog owners, it is up to us to make the best medical choices for our pets. This is tricky when our personal beliefs come into conflict with the legal system.
Common Side Effects of Rabies Vaccine In Dogs
1. Discomfort and Swelling
Vaccinations are normally given as injections and whenever you stick a needle into the skin, it’s going to hurt. This is temporary and not harmful.
2. Mild Fever
Mild fevers are common side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs. Vaccines do not contain live disease, but they do create a temporary immune-response that tells the body, “Hey, let’s get busy fighting this new thing.”
3. Nope – Not Hungry Mom
While the antibodies “get to work”, the body slows down other functions including the appetite. This is temporary.
4. No Playing Ball Today!
Some dogs will be a little drowsy after a vaccination. Again, this is temporary and not harmful.
5. Mom! I’m All Dubbed Up!
Some side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs includes cold or flu-like symptoms.
Sneezing, mild cough, or even a runny nose are all possibilities. It could take up to 5 days for these symptoms to disappear, but they are not serious.
6. Hard Lump Under the Skin
The rabies vaccine is an injection. A little swelling can occur at the site of the injection. This is one of a few minor side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs. It’s nothing to be alarmed about.
If you suspect your dog might be experiencing more severe side-effects (like facial swelling) please don’t hesitate and get your dog to the veterinarian.
7. Severe Vomiting
This is one of the more severe side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs. If your dog starts vomiting frequently after a rabies vaccination (or any vaccination), bring him/her to the vet.
8. Your Dog Can’t Stop Itching
We’ve all seen dogs writhe around on their backs, blissfully getting that itchy spot. The difference with this is that the dog will become frantically itchy. His/her skin may even develop hives.
9. Face, Neck, or Eye Swelling
A rare side-effect of the rabies vaccine can include mild to severe facial swelling. In the case of anaphylactic shock, the dog’s airway can swell and block the intake of oxygen.
This is an emergency requiring immediate veterinarian care
10. Severe Cough
This is a rare side effect of rabies vaccine in dogs, but it can happen. You might notice a mild cough along with the sneezing and runny nose mentioned above. However, if the coughing gets worse, consult your veterinarian.
11. Difficulty Breathing
If your dog is having difficulty breathing, you’ll see it in the rise and fall of his/her chest cavity. Your dog will be distressed and might paw at his/her mouth.
As your dog tries to take in more oxygen, it might sound like he/she is coughing. This could go hand-in-hand with the symptom above.
Side Effects of Rabies Vaccine, or Something Else?
The one challenge with identifying side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs is that the vaccine is often given with other vaccines, usually at an annual exam.
If It Hasn’t Happened Yet, It Probably Never Will
Uncommon and rare side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs will usually show up the very first time your dog is given the vaccine.
If your dog has never had a strong reaction to the rabies vaccine, chances are very high that they never will!
If your dog does experience some swelling and/or itching, your veterinarian might recommend a medication like Benadryl.
NOTE: Most vets will not recommend stopping vaccinations entirely just because of a minor vaccine reaction.
Was it Really the Rabies Vaccine that Caused the Side Effects?
Veterinarians usually give each vaccine in a separate location. That way they can identify local reactions to specific vaccines. But this still leaves a grey area when a dog has general side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs.
One way to avoid this problem is to break up the vaccines, and give them separately a few weeks apart.
Some veterinarians encourage this and some don’t. Talk to you vet about splitting up your dog’s vaccines if this concerns you. It absolutely can’t hurt to do them each separately!
STATISTICS: 40% of people bitten by a rabid animal are under the age of 15. ~ World Health Matters Organization
What is IN a Rabies Vaccine for Dogs?
A rabies vaccine is manufactured from a killed form of the rabies virus. There is no chance of your dog getting rabies from having the vaccine.
When injected under the skin (subcutaneous injection) or into the muscle (intramuscular injection), it stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies to the virus.
These antibodies will prevent your dog from contracting an active form of rabies if they should happen to be exposed to the virus.
Who Can Give a Rabies Vaccine to a Dog?
A rabies vaccine is not one that you can buy and give at home, like many other canine vaccines.
It must be given by a licensed veterinarian, or a certified veterinary technician under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Records of rabies vaccinations are kept meticulously by all veterinarians. Every time your dog gets a rabies shot, you should receive a certificate proving your dog has had the vaccine.
Your vet will also keep this information, which includes the vaccine brand and lot number.
Your vet may be legally obligated to provide your home county or state with a listing of every pet they have given rabies vaccines to.
This will vary from location to location. In my area, vets must be mandatory reporters to the county. This allows the county to ensure that all of the dogs get licensed locally.
Rabies is Fatal in Humans and Animals
Once an animal or person is showing signs of rabies infection, there is no cure. It is 100% fatal. The risk of the vaccination far outweighs the deadly disease.
People exposed to rabies can undergo a series of shots that prevent them from developing the active disease.
This is why the vaccine is a legal requirement of dog ownership. In many parts of the world, rabies still kills animals and people.
Rabies is entirely preventable and, in some countries, vaccinations are the law.
Rare side effects to a rabies vaccine include severe swelling of the face, neck, and possibly other parts of the body (severe anaphylaxis), difficulty breathing, collapse/seizures.
How Often Does a Dog Need a Rabies Vaccine?
Your dog should get a rabies vaccine between 4 to 6 months of age. It is good for 1 year.
The manufacturer recommends your dog get a rabies vaccine at 6 months old, then a booster at a year and a half, followed by a second booster at age 4 and a half (and every 3 years thereafter).
Some areas have laws that require the rabies vaccine be given more frequently.
I have seen locations that require the vaccine to be given every year- even though the manufacturer has licensed it as a 3 year vaccine!
What About Doing a Rabies Titer Test instead of Vaccinating?
Many owners are interested in doing titer testing, rather than just routinely vaccinating their dogs.
A titer test is a blood test that measures whether a dog is producing antibodies to a specific, vaccine preventable disease.
Titer testing is only done by some laboratories, and is more expensive than vaccinating.
Problems with Titer Testing
Problems with titer testing rather than straight vaccination include not being able to license your dog. Authorities will not consider your dog as having been vaccinated. It is not legally recognized.
Second, there is not enough science behind titer testing to know when a specific immune response means a dog is protected from contracting rabies.
What this means is while a titer test can show that a dog is producing antibodies in response to a vaccine, we have no idea where the cut off is for immunity.
There is no magic number a vet can point to and say “your dog is immune to rabies.” This is why titers are not a legal substitute to vaccination against rabies.
The third problem with titer testing, and the rabies vaccine in general, is that we have no idea how long the titer/vaccine is good for beyond the manufacturer’s 3 year license. It probably varies from dog to dog.
Try out the lifestyle-based vaccine calculator. It was created by the AAHA and should give you a clearer picture of what you should do.
Rabies Laws Are Strict
If you are concerned about the side effects of rabies vaccines in dogs, please talk to your vet. They can give you information about your local laws, and your dog’s specific risks based on their lifestyle.
If, like me, you have a dog who should not have vaccines due to a medical problem, please know that in many locations a veterinarian can NOT exempt your dog from the legal requirement to be up to date on the rabies vaccine.
NOTE: Current laws about rabies vaccination derive from a time when most dogs lived outside and were exposed to wild animals frequently.
The Dangers of Rule Breaking
The ramifications could be anything from a state mandated quarantine period and heavy fines, all the way to having your dog euthanized.
Rabies is no joke, and the law is firmly on the side of public safety. If you can, keep your dog’s rabies vaccines up to date.
Rabies is a serious, fatal disease both to humans and animals. Mild side effects of rabies vaccine in dogs do occur, but serious side effects are rare.
Getting your dog vaccinated against rabies is the law. There can be serious consequences for not having it done, including euthanizing your dog.
If you are worried, or if your dog has had reactions to vaccines before, talk to the veterinarian. Don’t miss those vaccination appointments!
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Jen Clifford has a B.A. in Biology from Reed College. She was a field biologist for several years and then spent 10 years working in veterinary medicine as a receptionist and technician. Jen is currently a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her tribe of pets. She is a passionate animal lover who is dedicated to helping people find solutions to their pet-related challenges. You can find more of her work on her website https://MyWickedTribe.com.