Rabies is a fatal disease to which all mammals are potentially susceptible, including humans, if no treatment is received. The characteristics of the disease can vary greatly. Incubation of the infection after exposure is often prolonged and variable, causing problems both in predicting disease spread and in proving disease freedom.
The United Kingdom has been rabies free since the disease was eradicated in 1922 but rabies is still present in many other countries across the world.
The disease is notifiable: if you suspect the disease, you must immediately notify the duty vet in your local Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) office.
Defra monitors the occurrence of major animal disease outbreaks worldwide as an early warning to assess the risk these events may pose to the UK. International disease monitoring assessments are available.
About the disease
Rabies cannot be definitively diagnosed through clinical signs alone and must be confirmed in the laboratory. In animals, clinical signs vary considerably, though typically include sudden behavioural changes and progressive paralysis leading to death. In some cases, however, an animal may die rapidly without demonstrating significant clinical signs.
Bats in Northern Europe can be infected by a rabies-like virus called European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV).
The disease of rabies is usually spread by saliva from the bite of an infected animal. Clinical signs include paralysis and aggression leading to a painful death.
Classical rabies was eradicated from the UK in 1922. Our island status makes it unlikely that rabies will be re-introduced through wildlife. There are strict legal controls on the entry of animals into the UK aimed at preventing the introduction of rabies. Pet dogs, cats and ferrets entering the UK are subject to rules relating to the movement of pets. Consequently, the largest risk for rabies entering the UK would be through an infected animal imported into the country illegally.
A Quantitative Risk Assessment, undertaken for Defra by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, concluded that the risk of a rabies case in the UK remains very low now that the UK has harmonised with the EU pet movement rules from 1 January 2012. Risk analysis experts from DNV have produced a report interpreting this risk assessment.
Should rabies enter the country, the Rabies Control Strategy sets out a framework for how an outbreak of rabies in England and Wales would be managed.
This Strategy covers control principles for the most likely scenarios for cases of Classical rabies virus and the rationale for such controls. Defra’s and the Welsh Government’s Contingency Plan for Exotic Animal Diseases provides detailed operational instructions for how an outbreak would be handled.
Under the Rabies (Importation of Dogs, Cats and Other Mammals) Order 1974 (“the Rabies Order”), rabies-susceptible animals are prohibited entry into Great Britain unless they have been issued with an import licence in advance by the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA). Animals subject to this prohibition are listed in Schedule 1 of the Rabies Order (see Order attached below). There are exceptions to this prohibition detailed in the Order.
Defra has produced an unofficial consolidated version of the Rabies Order which incorporates all amendments made to the Order since 1974:
- Consolidated version of 1974 Rabies Order (PDF 170 KB)
Defra has also produced guidance on import controls for rabies-susceptible animals entering Great Britain under the Rabies Order:
- Guidance on import controls under the Rabies Order (PDF 140 KB)
Pet dogs, cats and ferrets are not subject to the requirements of the Rabies Order if they meet the requirements of Regulation (EC) No 998/2003 and the Non Commercial Movement of Pet Animals Order 2011. This Order comes into force on 1 January 2012 and makes a number of amendments to the Rabies Order (which are shown in the consolidated version above).
All animal health rabies legislation is in exercise of the powers conferred on Ministers by the Animal Health Act 1981.
Domestic Regulations make provision in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the administration and enforcement of relevant European Community Regulations, Decisions and Directives.