Rabies in China: Is Your Family Vaccinated?

Having a pet can be a wonderful experience for kids and families. I loved growing up with a series of cats and dogs, and my older brother also had an enormous Habitrail full of gerbils. I wouldn’t trade away any of these memories! During all those years, I often was scratched up from playing with my pets, but not once did we ever worry about rabies. It’s simply not something we have to deal with in America, as almost all pets are properly vaccinated against this deadly disease. In America, less than a handful die each year from rabies, and most cases are from bats or other wildlife.

rabies vaccines china beijing expatBut the situation in China is very different and much more serious. Each year, over 3,000 people in China die from the rabies virus, the vast majority from dog bites. And children by far are the most vulnerable population, as they love to play with animals, and many wouldn’t even mention a slight bite or scratch to their parents.

That’s why it’s crucial for expat families to seriously think about getting the 3-shot rabies vaccine series now, for all of their children, before they get exposed. The vaccine protects them from the 100% fatality rate of this all-to-common disease in China. The vaccination rate among expat families is quite low, but rabies is common in the Beijing area among both stray and pet dogs. And those who feel “protected” in your Shunyi communities need to know that expats have died of rabies in China. In one sad case, an expat husband and father died 10 months after buying a harmless-appearing puppy from their local pound. He didn’t even report ever being bitten by their pet, and most likely got infected from playful licking and innocuous-appearing scratches. Please don’t let this happen to you or your loved ones! Rabies is 100% fatal, there is no cure, and it’s a painful and slow death.​​

The American Academy of Pediatrics also mentions some helpful tips to share with your kids to prevent pet bites, especially dogs:

  • ​Socialize your pet. Gradually expose your puppy to a variety of people and other animals so it feels at ease in these situations; continue this exposure as your dog gets older.
  • Train your dog. Commands can build a bond of obedience and trust between the dog and owner. Avoid aggressive games with your dog.
  • Vaccinate your dog against rabies and other diseases.
  • Neuter or spay your dog. These dogs are less likely to bite.
  • Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
  • Teach your child to ask a dog owner for permission before petting any dog.
  • Let a strange dog sniff you or your child before touching it, and pet it gently, avoiding the face and tail.
  • Never bother a dog if it is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
  • Do not run past a dog.
  • If a dog threatens you, remain calm. Avoid eye contact. Stand still or back away slowly until the dog leaves. If you are knocked down, curl into a ball and protectyour face with your arms and fists.​​

Rabies is a serious issue but definitely not the most common pet-related problem I see. I often treat serious skin infections from bacteria such as staph, especially in the hands, from pet bites and scratches. In almost all cases, the cuts were from typical playful fun with their own pet. The #1 treatment in all cases of bites and scratches is immediate washing out with soap and water!


(This article was originally printed in Beijing Kids magazine, where I am a contributing editor. You can click here to read the rest of my BeijingKids “The Doc Is In” columns.)

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3 thoughts on “Rabies in China: Is Your Family Vaccinated?”

  1. Early signs of rabies in a dog

    compiled from various web resources

    Change in tone of the dog’s bark
    Chewing at the bite site
    Loss of appetite
    Subtle changes in behavior, irritability or lethargy, Unusual shyness or aggression, Excessive excitability, irritability/changes in routines or behavior
    Pica (eating dirt, chalk, non food substances)
    Hydrophobia (avoiding drinking, the throat muscles are some of the first to get paralyzed/affected)
    Jaw is dropped
    Inability to swallow
    Change in tone of bark
    Muscular lack of coordination
    Paralysis in the mandible and larynx
    Excessive salivation (hypersalivation), or frothy saliva
    Memory Problems – The dog may suddenly forget who anyone is, even family members she’s lived with all her life.

    Rabies in small animals typically progresses rapidly. 1-3 days of mild symptoms, or sometimes no symptoms, before paralytic (dumb rabies) or furious rabies (the dogs that get angry and bite) all are visible symptoms of CNS involvement.

    The poor young female dog I saw back in the Fall, I guess had dumb rabies. She was walking in wide circles in the middle of the street (Wangjing near Guangshun Lu). My son and I were on our way to a class on my e-bike and a little early, so stopped. I thought she had been hit by a car, clocked in the head and walking in circles cos of that. She eventually laid down/fell down in the street, got up a few more times and tried to walk, fell in the gutter in front of the tire of a parked car, – I almost picked her up in my jacket at one point, about to take her into the vet. My son wisely stayed back the whole time. I called ICVS, sometime during the call I realized her mouth was frothy and she was having seizure like stretching of the forelimbs….OH MY GOD SHE HAS RABIES…..Right away, got my husband on the phone and by this time there was a big crowd of passersby watching all this without emotion or comment (you know what I mean).

    ICVS had said if it was rabies, it was already too late, just call the police,
    so we did (A chinese man actually spoke with them, my husband taught me the word for rabies so they could understand what to say to the police) ….they came and with a net scooped her up, she struggled a bit but not meanly, and gently placed her in the back of their police car station wagon to be euthanized humanely, I can only hope. She was a public health hazard as she was, so something had to be done.

    But yes, rabies does exist in beijing, as my story will show. It’s
    smart not to approach strange dogs at all, watch neighborhood dogs carefully for signs of odd behavior….and goes without saying not to do what I did!

    Something I learned while researching, though, is that worldwide 96% of human Rabies cases are from DOGS. Only about 1% or less are from cats, and the other 3% are from wildlife (raccoons, bats entering the home, etc). If your pet never leaves the home, they really are not at risk (well, if a rabid rat gets in and is eaten, your pet could still be at risk!)

    Only a handful or less of people have ever survived rabies after symptoms have emerged. The few rare cases when I looked into the medical literature were interesting to read, though. Some did not even know they were bitten (one was found to have bite marks…done by a bat who entered the window, bitten during sleep).


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