Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system.
Rabies can infect any warm-blooded animal.
There is no cure for rabies, and it is almost always fatal. Once clinical signs occur, an infected animal usually dies within five days.
The only way to test for rabies is by examination of the brain tissue of a dead animal. There is no way to test for rabies infection in a live animal.
Rabies virus is spread by contact with the saliva of an infected animal. Transmission is usually through a bite wound, but the disease has been known to spread through a scratch or an existing open wound.
The incubation period — the period of time between exposure to a disease and the onset of clinical signs — for rabies can vary greatly. The typical incubation period is three to eight weeks, but it can be as little as nine days or as long as several years in some rare cases. The incubation period depends on several factors, including the location of the entry wound, the severity of the wound and the animal’s immune system. In general, the farther the wound is from the brain, the longer the incubation period will be.
An infected animal can only transmit rabies after the onset of clinical signs.
Rabies is endemic throughout the continental United States. Hawaii is the only rabies-free state. Rabies is most prevalent along the East Coast from Florida to Maine and in southern Arizona along the Mexican border.
The most common rabies carriers in the U.S. are raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.
Human rabies cases in the U.S. currently average two per year. Cases of rabies in domestic pets average 400 to 500 per year.
The early signs of rabies typically include behavioral changes — the animal may appear anxious, aggressive or more friendly than normal.
As the disease progresses, animals develop hypersensitivity to light and sound. They may also have seizures and/or become extremely vicious.
The final stage of rabies is typified by paralysis of the nerves that control the head and throat — the animal will hypersalivate and lose the ability to swallow. As the paralysis progresses, the animal eventually goes into respiratory failure and dies.
Most states have laws mandating rabies vaccinations for both dogs and cats.
Most states also have laws requiring rabies quarantine for animals that have bitten a person or another animal.
Some states also have mandatory rabies quarantine for unvaccinated pets who have been bitten by a wild animal or who have a suspected bite wound of unknown origin.
Why a 10-Day Quarantine?
In almost all states, an animal that has bitten a human or another domestic animal must undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine period. Some states require that this quarantine be carried out in an approved animal control facility, while others may allow the quarantine to be carried out at the owner’s home.
The quarantine is set at 10 days because a rabies-infected animal can only transmit the disease after clinical signs have developed AND once these signs have developed, the animal will die within 10 days.
If the animal lives beyond the 10th day, it can be said with certainty that it was not shedding the rabies virus at the time that the bite occurred.
If the animal dies before the 10th day, it can be tested for rabies. If the test is positive, a human bite victim will still have enough time to receive post-exposure vaccinations and prevent the disease.
Why a Six-Month Quarantine?
In many states, an unvaccinated domestic animal that has been bitten by a wild animal or that has received a suspected bite wound of unknown origin must undergo a six-month rabies quarantine. Most often, state law requires that this quarantine be carried out in an approved animal control facility at the owner’s expense. Because the incubation period for rabies is usually less than six months, this quarantine period is meant to ensure that the animal does not have rabies before it is allowed to come into regular contact with humans and other animals again.
If an owner is unable to comply with this law or cannot afford to pay for the mandatory six-month quarantine, the only alternative for the pet is mandatory euthanasia and testing for rabies.
Keeping your pet’s rabies vaccination up to date will ensure that he never needs to be quarantined for six months, even if he is bitten by a wild animal.
Tips for Protecting You and Your Pets
Know your state’s rabies law! Obtain a copy from your local animal control agency or health department.
Always keep your pet’s rabies vaccine up to date. Puppies and kittens should receive their first rabies vaccination at 12 weeks of age. Pets must be vaccinated again in one year, and then a three-year rabies vaccine is generally administered during the rest of your pet’s life. Many animal control agencies and humane societies offer free or low-cost vaccinations. To find low-cost options in your area, call your local animal shelter.
Keep your pet’s rabies vaccination certificate in an accessible location.
If your pet bites a person or another animal, consult your veterinarian immediately. Most states require that bites to humans be reported to the local health department. An animal control officer may contact you to file this report, and you will be required to show proof of your pet’s rabies vaccination.
If your pet is bitten by another known domestic animal, consult your veterinarian immediately and ask the owner to provide proof of rabies vaccination. If the other animal is not up to date on his rabies vaccine, it is advisable to report the incident to your local animal control authority to ensure that the animal is quarantined appropriately.
If your pet receives a suspected bite wound from an unknown animal or if your pet comes in direct contact with any wild animal, even if no wounds are evident, consult your veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian may recommend a rabies booster.
If you are scratched or bitten by any animal, either wild or domestic, consult your physician immediately. If required by your state’s rabies law, your physician will report the incident to your local health department and animal control agency. If the animal is a pet, ask the owner to provide proof of rabies vaccination.
Reducing Your Risk of Getting Rabies From Wildlife
Don’t keep wild animals as pets. Americans keep more than 4.7 million exotic animals as pets — animals that cannot be vaccinated against rabies.
Avoid direct contact with wildlife, dead or alive. Never touch any wildlife with your bare hands. If you find a sick or injured wild animal, call your local animal control agency or humane society and let the experts handle it.
Avoid animals displaying unnatural behavior. Wild animals that are unusually friendly or displaying other unnatural behaviors may have the rabies virus.
Discourage contact between pets and wildlife. Don’t let your pets roam or encourage them to interact with unfamiliar domestic or wild animals.
Feed your pets indoors. Leaving food outside often attracts stray dogs, cats and wildlife to your yard.
Animal-proof your trash. Make sure your trash lids are locked, and don’t leave bags of garbage outside the cans.
Prevent wild animals from getting into the house. Prune tree branches that overhang the roof. Keep screens on windows and cover small openings, such as chimneys, furnace ducts and eaves.
Report all stray animals to animal control. Stray animals may not be vaccinated for rabies. They also run a high risk of exposure to wild animals who carry the disease.
Give your child some guidelines to follow. Do not frighten young children, but make sure they learn some basic rules about protecting themselves from strange or unfamiliar animals.