High risk of rabies in Spain due to low vaccination coverage of dogs

by Lorraine Williamson

MADRID – Spain is at high risk of a rabies outbreak due to the country’s low vaccination coverage of dogs. Vaccination against rabies is mandatory in all autonomous regions, except in Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia. 

There is a high risk of a rabies outbreak in dogs. This is according to an epidemiological study on Rabies from MSD Animal Health in collaboration with the Institute of Clinical Immunology and Infectious Diseases (YNMUN Grupo Biomedicina) and the Department of Animal Health at the University of Córdoba. 

Day Against Rabies 

The research was published on the occasion of Rabies Day on September 28. The World Rabies Day initiative is from the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC). Furthermore, it is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These organisations aim to make society aware of this deadly zoonosis and the importance of vaccination to prevent it. 

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The disease affects more than 150 countries and kills about 60,000 people each year, according to data from the World Health Organisation. The WHO for Animal Health recommends vaccination of at least 70% of dogs in risk areas to reduce human cases to zero. 

Re-emerging disease 

Rabies, whose mortality rate in humans once the disease manifests is 99%, is considered a re-emerging disease worldwide. New variants of the virus are also appearing. 

“Viruses know no boundaries. A vaccination rate of less than 70% is not only a risk for the autonomous community that decides not to vaccinate but also has an equally remarkable impact on the population immunity (herd immunity) of the rest of the country” said Fernando Fariñas. He is co-author of the epidemiological study on rabies, director of Ynmun and international coordinator of the ZEIG (Group of Experts on Zoonoses and Emerging Infectious Diseases). 

Low Frequency of Dog Rabies Vaccination 

The WHO recommended on July 25, 1996, that Spain should not stop vaccinating dogs and cats under any circumstances. However, in the years 2019, 2020 and 2021, there has been a very low frequency of canine rabies vaccination. Moreover, vaccination rates were 11.49%, 11.8% and 11.5%, respectively. 

Localised cases are sporadic in the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Experts say the geographic proximity of areas where rabies is endemic and the relocation of unvaccinated animals that come into contact with dogs from these areas has contributed to the occurrence of these cases. 

In addition, in 2022, the arrival of pets along with refugees from Ukraine, a country where rabies is endemic, has put organisations such as the College of Veterinarians in Barcelona (COVB) on edge. 

Vaccination obligation is not national in Spain 

In Spain, the Autonomous Communities decide on the rabies vaccination strategy, which is mandatory in all communities except Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia. Whereas, in Asturias, the vaccine is only mandatory for potentially dangerous dogs. For some regions, the vaccination rate is as low as 10% (Catalonia 11.5% and Galicia 9.7%) and that means an outbreak can have deadly consequences. 

Viral disease 

Rabies is a viral infectious disease that kills nearly 60,000 people worldwide every year. It is caused by Rhabdoviridae, a family of viruses that infect animals, plants, fungi and protists. It is a public health problem in more than 150 countries. 

The WHO aims to eradicate this disease by 2030 and Spain has been free from rabies since 1978. But so far this year, five imported and highly isolated cases have been identified in Melilla. And the experts attribute it to its proximity to Morocco, where the virus is present. These imported cases of rabies usually occur in dogs and horses. 

How is rabies transmitted? 

Rabies is spread through the saliva of infected animals, which can transmit the virus by biting a person or other animal or even scratching deeply if their saliva comes into contact with it, such as a lick. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), dogs are the main source of transmission in humans in 99% of cases. But dogs are not alone. For example, bat rabies has become a dangerous threat in America, Australia and Western Europe. Also, although rare, we can contract the disease by inhaling aerosols containing the virus. 

How is the disease evolving? 

In general, the incubation period for rabies can be 2 to 8 weeks but the duration will depend on the location of the bite, if any, and the distance from the brain. In the case of dogs, the main carriers of rabies, they can transmit the disease for up to 10 days after being infected, as pets usually do not survive beyond that period. 

The stages of the disease


The time between the bite and the appearance of the first signs. During this period, the dog seems to be healthy, and asymptomatic and there are no signs of the disease. This phase can take anywhere from a week to a few months. 


The first symptoms appear: The dog is more nervous, afraid, more anxious, tired and can withdraw. This period can last from 2 to 10 days. 

Aggressive phase

The most dangerous phase, in which the owners can become infected with rabies. In this phase, the dog is so excitable that it can bite its own master. 


The last stage and goes from the last symptoms to death: the animal usually goes into spasms and eventually goes into a coma. 

What to do if symptoms are detected? 

When the animal shows symptoms, the veterinarian is obliged to inform the health authorities of the suspected case. There is no turning back and the animal must be killed. Sometimes some symptoms can be confused with another pathology, especially neurological disorders, the animal must be in isolation for 14 days. 

Since vaccines stop working after animals have been exposed to the virus, preventive immunisation in dogs and cats is essential to prevent infection in pets and the possible spread of the disease to humans. However, the duration will depend on the location of the bite if any, and the distance from the brain. In the case of dogs, the main carriers of rabies, they can transmit the disease for up to 10 days after being infected, as pets usually do not survive beyond that period. 

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