- Rabies is a preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal.
- The rabies virus infects the central nervous system of mammals, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.
- From numerous studies conducted on rabid dogs, cats and ferrets, we know that when the rabies virus is introduced into a muscle through a bite from another animal, it travels from the site of the bite to the brain by moving within nerves. The animal does not appear ill during this time.
- The time between the bite and the appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period and it may last for weeks to months. A bite by the animal during the incubation period does not carry a risk of rabies because the virus has not yet made it to the saliva.
- Late in the disease, after the virus has reached the brain and multiplied there to cause an inflammation of the brain, it moves from the brain to the salivary glands and saliva.
- After the virus has multiplied in the brain, almost all animals begin to show the first signs of rabies. Most of these signs are obvious to even an untrained observer, but within a short period of time, usually within three to five days, the virus has caused enough damage to the brain that the animal begins to show unmistakable signs of rabies.
- Extensive studies on dogs, cats and ferrets show that the rabies virus can be excreted in the saliva of infected animals several days before illness is apparent. Such extensive studies have not been done for wildlife species, but it is known that wildlife species do excrete rabies virus in their saliva before the onset of signs of illness. The excretion of virus may be intermittent, and the relative amount of excreted virus may vary greatly over time, before and after the onset of clinical signs.
- 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 exposed to saliva from a rabid animal.
- 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 vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes, although any mammal can get rabies.
- Approximately 120,000 animals or more are tested for rabies each year in the United States, and approximately 6 percent are found to be rabid. The proportion of positive animals depends largely on the species of animal and ranges from <1 percent in domestic animals to >10 percent of wildlife species.
- Approximately 5,000 animal rabies cases are reported annually to CDC, and more than 90 percent of those cases occur in wildlife.
- The number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States declined during the twentieth century, from more than 100 annually in the early 1900’s to just one or two per year since 1960.
- Animals with rabies may act strangely. Some may be aggressive and try to bite you or other animals, or they may drool more than normal. (This is sometimes shown in movies as animals “foaming at the mouth.”)
- But not all animals with rabies will be aggressive or drooling. Other animals may act timid or shy, move slowly or act tame, or let you get close to them. Because that’s not the way wild animals usually act, you should remember that something could be wrong.
Rabies and Bats
- Bats are the leading cause of rabies deaths in people in the United States. Rabid bats have been found in all 49 continental states. Only Hawaii is rabies-free. The good news is that most bats don’thave rabies. But you can’t tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it. Rabies can only be confirmed in a laboratory.
- Any bat that is active during the day or is found in a place where bats are not usually seen – like in your home or on your lawn – might be rabid. A bat that is unable to fly and is easily approached could be sick.
- 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 QUARANTINE?
- In almost all states, a healthy 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.
- If you were bitten by a cat, dog or ferret that appeared healthy at the time you were bitten, it can be confined by its owner for 10 days and observed.
- No anti-rabies prophylaxis is needed. No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days.
- Dogs, cats and ferrets any animal exposed to a confirmed or suspected rabid animal and are current on rabies vaccination should immediately receive veterinary medical care for assessment, wound cleansing and booster vaccination. The animal should be kept under the owner’s control and observed for 45 days.
- Skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats that bite humans should be euthanized and tested as soon as possible. The length of time between rabies virus appearing in the saliva and onset of symptoms is unknown for these animals and holding them for observation is not acceptable.
- After exposure to wildlife in which rabies is suspected, prophylaxis is warranted in most circumstances. Because the period of rabies virus shedding in wild animal hybrids is unknown, these animals should be euthanized and tested rather than confined and observed when they bite humans.
- Following an exposure to rabies, dogs, cats and ferrets that have never been vaccinated against rabies should be euthanized immediately by an animal health professional because there are no USDA-licensed biologics for postexposure prophylaxis in previously unvaccinated domestic animal. The vaccine alone will not reliably prevent the disease in these animals.
- If the owner is unwilling to have the animal euthanized, the animal should be placed in strict quarantine for four (dogs and cats) or six (ferrets) months. A rabies vaccine should be administered at the time of entry into quarantine.
- Keeping your pet’s rabies vaccination up to date will ensure that he never needs to be quarantined for four to 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 one to three-year rabies vaccine is generally administered during the rest of your pet’s life depending on where you live. Many animal control agencies and shelter organizations 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.