Everywhere you go in Africa you'll see stray, mangy, skittish looking dogs. Dog lovers traveling in these parts can get very tempted to feed and pet these sorry souls, but you should really try to avoid contact because they may carry rabies. In fact, any interaction with animals can carry the risk of rabies; pet monkeys, mongooses, and cats included.
What Is Rabies?
Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. It is fatal if left untreated. Many wild animals and stray dogs carry rabies throughout Africa.
Don't feed, pet or come close to any animal unless the owner is nearby and gives you permission. Don't get close to any pet monkeys or other poor wild animals that have been taken as pets. If you are walking in rural areas carry a stick, the threat will usually scare away any stray dogs, they tend to be quite skittish and harmless. Those that carry rabies, however, can be aggressive.
What to Do If You Are Bitten By an Animal in Africa
If you get bitten or scratched by any animal in Africa, you should get a rabies shot. Even if you are bitten by a pet dog, you have to seek medical help immediately. This is because a pet dog may have come into contact with a stray dog carrying rabies in the recent past. You can't risk it with rabies because it's fatal if left undetected.
If there's a known rabid dog in the area, local authorities will usually warn people in the neighborhood to stay inside for a set period and will then proceed to shoot every stray dog in sight. Walking your dog even in your own garden during this time is fraught with danger as the shooting accuracy can leave a lot to be desired.
Rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing encephalopathy and ultimately death. Early symptoms of rabies in humans are nonspecific, consisting of fever, headache, and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.
There is no treatment for rabies after symptoms of the disease appear. However, two decades ago scientists developed an extremely effective new rabies vaccine regimen that provides immunity to rabies when administered after an exposure (post-exposure prophylaxis) or for protection before an exposure occurs (pre-exposure prophylaxis). It is worth getting a rabies shot before you travel to Africa.
Medical information based on Rabies Information From the CDC