Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system. It is a zoonotic (can be transmitted from animals to humans) viral disease. The virus can be found in domestic animals (including cows) and wild animals. Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is invariably fatal to animals and humans and there is no rabies cure. However, prompt post-exposure shots are effective in stopping the development of the disease.
Potential exposures -- human
If there is the slightest question of a human rabies exposure, wash the exposed area thoroughly with antibacterial soap or detergent and water, or even just flush with water. You should then contact your Public Health Officer for professional advice. Although you may also contact your doctor, many doctors are not particularly familiar with rabies.
Remember that even if rabies is not likely, tetanus is always a possibility from a bite; you should make sure that your tetanus shot is current. There is also the possibility of bacterial infection from an animal bite.
Potential exposures – pets
If your pet has been bitten or attacked, has fought with or is exposed to a wild animal:
Call the pet away from the animal.
- Confine the wild animal, if possible, without touching it or exposing themselves.
- Prevent exposure to saliva from an open wound - you should not handle, pet, touch, or examine your dog or cat for at least two hours following the fight.
- If you must handle the pet, you should wear heavy gloves and/or be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. You should then contact your doctor or health department to determine if you have been exposed.
- Contact animal control immediately.
High, low, and no risk rabies species
Technically, any warm blooded animal (including humans) can get and transmit rabies. There have been no naturally-occurring incidences (only laboratory-induced) of rabies in birds, and very few in lagomorphs (cottontails) and rodents (squirrels, mice, voles, moles, rats). The risk factor is very small in these animals. Reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded and can not carry rabies.
There are mammals, called "rabies vector species" (RVS) or "high risk species" which have a somewhat higher risk for rabies. The RVSs are: raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and groundhogs (woodchucks). In 1998 Virginia also added opossums to this list, although the incidence has been very small, primarily because up until that time it was thought it was virtually impossible for opossums to get rabies because of their low body temperature. There have also been several cases of rabies in beavers.
It is important to remember that animals can have rabies for weeks or even months without showing symptoms, so caution should also be used with high risk species.
If you are bitten by a high risk mammal, the animal, if captured, must be turned over to local animal control and tested for rabies. The only way to test for rabies is to euthanize the animal, cutting the head off and examining the brain tissue. You need to consult a physician if bit by a mammal, and a veterinarian if their dog or cat has been bitten.
How can I tell normal behavior in a rabies vector species from possible rabies?
When nocturnal animals (raccoons, skunks, opossums, or foxes) are seen in the daylight, many people believe that this is a sign of rabies. However, in spring and early summer it is not unusual to see nocturnal animals during the day because mothers and juveniles who are searching for food will hunt whenever they have to. They may even compete with household pets for food if it is left outside. If a caller is describing aggressive behavior toward a pet in the yard, clarify whether they are actually fighting or instead competing for food. If the food is brought inside but the animal continues to hang around and acts aggressive, there is cause for concern. (Of course, if actually contact or fighting took place, this is definitely a potential rabies exposure.)
Also, in times of drought, animals may seem unusually friendly or come close to homes because they are searching for food and water sources.
Certain other habits, such as nesting in a chimney or attic, are also normal behavior, particularly in baby season or extremes of weather. Nesting behavior is not a sign of rabies.
Mange, particularly in foxes, may cause abnormal behavior as the animal is literally itching to death; it is so miserable that it may be frenzied and scratching, and may be starving as a result. This behavior is often confused with rabies symptoms. One sign of mange is a very patchy-looking coat.
"Sick" behavior may take any number of forms, including lethargy, stupor, falling over, walking around in circles, aimless wandering, unexplained aggression toward pets or humans, eye or nose discharge, and partial or complete rear paralysis (often mistaken for an injured leg or hindquarters). Some of these symptoms occur with distemper also; distemper is also always fatal to the animal.
If the animal is obviously injured, rather than sick, do not to handle the animal. Animals can have rabies for months without showing any symptoms.
Remember that most animal control officers are not looking to capture and euthanize wildlife. If they approach an animal that runs away from them they consider that fairly normal behavior and they will let it go (unless an exposure has occurred); if the animal stays put, approaches, or is aggressive, they do not consider that normal behavior. Even if the animal has distemper rather than rabies, there is no cure once symptoms develop, and euthanasia is the most humane action.
Animals that are under stress, feel threatened or are cornered, will bite as their primary means of defense. Get professional advice or assistance (rehabilitator or animal control) before attempting to capture any adult mammal. When necessary, a shovel, box, trashcan, or net can be used to contain the animal, or it can be lured into the garage and contained.
CDC Rabies Information
The following information is taken directly from the Centers for Disease Control rabies information web page:
How do people get rabies?
People usually get exposed to rabies through the bite of a rabid animal. It is also possible, but quite rare, that people may get rabies if infectious material from a rabid animal, such as saliva, gets directly into their eyes, nose, mouth, or a wound.
Can I get rabies in any way other than an animal bite?
Although occasional reports of transmission by non-bite exposure suggest that such exposures constitute sufficient reason to initiate post-exposure prophylaxis (rabies shots) under some circumstances, non-bite exposures rarely cause rabies. Scratches, abrasions, open wounds, or mucous membranes contaminated with saliva or other potentially infectious material (such as brain tissue) from a rabid animal constitute non-bite exposures.
Other contact, such as petting a rabid animal or contact with the blood, urine or feces (e.g., guano) of a rabid animal, does not constitute an exposure and is not an indication for prophylaxis.
How soon after an exposure should I seek medical attention?
Medical assistance should be obtained as soon as possible after an exposure. There have been no vaccine failures in the United States (i.e., someone developed rabies) when post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) was given promptly and appropriately after an exposure.
What animals get rabies?
Any mammal can get rabies. The most common wild reservoirs of rabies are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes. Domestic mammals can also get rabies. Cats, cattle, and dogs are the most frequently reported rabid domestic animals in the United States.
What is the risk of rabies from squirrels, mice, rats, and other rodents?
Small rodents (such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, and chipmunks), and lagomorphs (such as rabbits and hares) are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in an unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area. However, from 1985 through 1994, woodchucks accounted for 86% of the 368 cases of rabies among rodents reported to CDC. Woodchucks or groundhogs (Marmota monax) are the only rodents that may be frequently submitted to a state health department because of a suspicion of rabies. In all cases involving rodents, the state or local health department should be consulted before a decision is made
to initiate post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
Bats and Rabies
Do bats get rabies?
Yes. Bats are mammals and are susceptible to rabies, but most do not have the disease. You cannot tell if a bat has rabies just by looking at it; rabies can be confirmed only by having the animal tested in a laboratory. To minimize the risk for rabies, it is best never to handle any bat.
What should I do if I come in contact with a bat?
If you are bitten by a bat -- or if infectious material (such as saliva) from a bat gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or a wound -- wash the affected area thoroughly and get medical attention immediately. Whenever possible, the bat should be captured and sent to a laboratory for rabies testing.
People usually know when they have been bitten by a bat. However, because bats have small teeth which may leave marks that are not easily seen, there are situations in which you should seek medical advice even in the absence of an obvious bite wound. For example, if you awaken and find a bat in your room, see a bat in the room of an unattended child, or see a bat near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice and have the bat tested.
People cannot get rabies just from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave, or at a distance. In addition, people cannot get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine, or from touching a bat on its fur (even though bats should never be handled!).
What should I do if I find a bat in my home?
If you see a bat in your home and you are sure no human or pet exposure has occurred, confine the bat to a room by closing all doors and windows leading out of the room except those to the outside. The bat will probably leave soon. If not, it can be caught, as described below, and released outdoors away from people and pets.
However, if there is any question of exposure, leave the bat alone and call animal control or a wildlife conservation agency for assistance. If professional assistance is unavailable, use precautions to capture the bat safely, as described below.
What you will need: leather work gloves (put them on); small box or coffee can; piece of cardboard; tape.
When the bat lands, approach it slowly and place a box or coffee can over it. Slide the cardboard under the container to trap the bat inside. Tape the cardboard to the container securely. Contact your health department or animal control authority to make arrangements for rabies testing.
How can I tell if a bat has rabies?
Rabies can be confirmed only in a laboratory. However, any bat that is active by day, is found in a place where bats are not usually seen (for example in rooms in your home or on the lawn), or is unable to fly, is far more likely than others to be rabid. Such bats are often the most easily approached. Therefore, it is best never to handle any bat.
This information is posted with the permission of its authors
- the Wildlife Rescue League, Falls Church, VA