Perhaps it was too many viewings of Old Yeller or the cautionary tales of my somewhat over-protective mother, but I grew up with an intense fear of dogs with frothing mouths. I remember once coming across a dog that looked like it was frothing at the mouth and running away, petrified, only to discover that it was actually just slobbering away in its usual prolific manner. The root of all this at times quite irrational fear was, of course, rabies (or hydrophobia, as it is sometimes known). Rabies is an acute infectious viral disease which attacks the central nervous system and which is spread to humans via contact (generally a bite or a scratch) with infected animals. The usual carriers are bats, skunks, foxes, raccoons, cats, and dogs.

The rabies virus at work

The course of rabies in humans is varied and quite horrible:
"At the end of the incubation period (generally four to six weeks) the site of the now-healed wound becomes irritated and painful, and the local tissues may become numb. Depression and anxiety are common. The initial stage lasts for about two days. In the next stage, the period of excitation, the patient becomes irritable and hypersensitive; the general attitude is one of terror intensified by the onset of difficult breathing and swallowing and a feeling of strangulation, caused by spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm and larynx. The patient is extremely thirsty but experiences spasms of the larynx when water is presented or even mentioned, hence the original name of the disease, hydrophobia. Vomiting, pallor, and fever of about 102 degrees are common during this stage. A thick secretion of mucus collects in the mouth and throat, and the individual expectorates frequently or attempts to cough. This stage lasts three to five days and usually terminates in death from a convulsive seizure or from cardiac or respiratory failure." - Encarta '95.

Rabies victim displaying hydrophobia

At one time, the bite of a rabid animal was certain death, but thanks to developments made by Louis Pasteur in the late 1800's, a vaccine is available which can prevent rabies from developing if administered early enough. However, if the vaccine is not administered before rabies has developed, there is little hope for the patient. Taber's Medical Dictionary sums up the nursing implications of a patient with rabies in the following grim fashion:

"If rabies develops, isolate the patient in a dark, quiet room. Use gown-and-glove technique in handling saliva and saliva-contaminated articles, and avoid saliva contamination of skin injuries. Monitor and support cardiac and pulmonary function. Provide psychologic support to the patient and the family regarding impending death."

The latest revelation in the Rabies Files is that Edgar Allan Poe is now believed to have died from this dread disease. The Tell-Tale Froth? Perhaps... but we can never be certain since the evidence has long-since decomposed. A horrible, excrutiating malady lingers on...

The photos shown above were gleaned from the the above mentioned website and the magnificent (if highly gruesome) book Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook.

Death Threats...