Thanks to widespread pet vaccinations, effective post-exposure treatment and the relative rarity of undetected bites by rabid animals, the number of human deaths from rabies in the United States caused has declined to an average of only one or two per year—far less than the number of human fatalities caused by lightning strikes. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions to protect yourself, your family and your pets. The best ways to guard against rabies:
- Don't approach or handle wild animals, especially sick wild animals.
- Vaccinate your pets.
- Get prompt post-exposure treatment when advised to do so by a doctor or health department.
What is rabies?
Rabies (Lyssavirus) is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system in mammals. It's transmitted through the saliva a few days before death when the animal "sheds" the virus. Rabies is not transmitted through the blood, urine or feces of an infected animal, nor is it spread airborne through the open environment. Because it affects the nervous system, most rabid animals behave abnormally.
Signs of rabies in animals
In the "furious" form, wild animals may appear to be agitated, bite or snap at imaginary and real objects and drool excessively. In the "dumb" form, wild animals may appear tame and seem to have no fear of humans.
There are other signs, such as the animal appearing drunk or excessively wobbly, circling, seeming partially paralyzed, acting disorientated or mutilating itself. However, most of these signs can also be indicative of other diseases like distemper or lead poisoning. There are few behavioral signs that are telltale of rabies alone.
If a typically nocturnal animal, such as a raccoon or skunk, is active during the day and exhibiting abnormal behavior, you should seek advice from your local animal control, animal organization, wildlife rehabilitator or state wildlife agency.
- Rabies travels from the brain to the salivary glands during the final stage of the disease—this is when an animal can spread the disease, most commonly through a bite.
- Rabies can't go through unbroken skin. People can get rabies only via a bite from a rabid animal or possibly through scratches, abrasions, open wounds or mucous membranes in contact with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal.
- The rabies virus is short-lived when exposed to open air—it can only survive in saliva and dies when the animal's saliva dries up.
- If you handle a pet who has been in a fight with a potentially rabid animal, take precautions such as wearing gloves to keep any still-fresh saliva from getting into an open wound.
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Which species carry rabies?
Any warm-blooded mammal can carry or contract rabies, but the primary carriers in North America are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes and coyotes. Thanks to an increase in pet vaccinations, wildlife now account for more than 90 percent of all reported rabies cases.
Rabies tends to be more common in different species in different places, but is certainly not limited to these trends:
- Raccoons suffer the most from this disease in the eastern U.S.
- Skunks are the dominant rabies victims in the north- and south-central states, although skunk rabies also occurs in the East.
- Bats suffering from rabies are not limited to any particular area but scattered widely.
- Foxes in western Alaska, parts of Arizona and Texas, and the eastern United States are victims more frequently than foxes in other areas.
- Coyotes with rabies have been found in southern Texas in the past but rarely in recent years.
- Rodents (squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs), rabbits and hares rarely get rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Squirrels may suffer from the fatal roundworm brain parasite, which causes signs that look exactly like rabies.
- Opossums are amazingly resistant to rabies. Hissing, drooling and swaying are part of the opossum's bluff routine. It is intended to scare away potential predators, yet it looks just like rabies and is the reason people can be convinced they're seeing rabid opossums when they're not.
Federal and state wildlife officials have been vaccinating wildlife in many regions over the past two decades. They distribute vaccine-laden baits that the target animals eat and thereby vaccinate themselves. Right now, oral rabies vaccination of wildlife focuses on halting the spread of specific types of rabies in targeted carrier species. It's hoped that this tool can also shrink the disease's range.
People and rabies
Given all the media attention that rabies receives, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that very few people die from rabies nationwide each year. There are fewer than three fatalities each year nationwide, on average.
People who contracted rabies in the United States were mostly infected by a bat. Most didn’t even know they were bitten. Some may have been sleeping when bitten. Others handled a bat bare-handed without realizing they’d been potentially exposed to rabies. But don’t panic over every bat sighting. Less than one-half of one percent of all bats in North America carries rabies.
Although raccoons suffer from rabies more than any other mammal in the United States (about 35 percent of all animal rabies cases), only one human death from the raccoon strain of rabies has been recorded in the United States.
Despite the long odds of contracting rabies, the remote possibility of infection exists and should not be taken lightly:
- Don't approach or handle wild animals.
- Vaccinate your pets—both cats and dogs—and any free-roaming cats under your care.
- If you see a wild animal who may be sick, contact your local animal control, veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator for help. Don't handle sick wildlife!
- If anyone is bitten by any wild animal, get medical advice from a doctor or health department immediately.
- If your pet is bitten by any wild animal, get medical advice from your veterinarian immediately.
- Scrub any bite wound immediately and aggressively with soap and water, use antiseptic soap such as betadine or Nolvasan®, if available. Flush the wound thoroughly with water.
- If anyone is bitten by a potentially rabid animal, scrub and flush the wound, then go to your doctor or an emergency room.
- If possible, the animal should be captured and tested for rabies. Unless you can do it without risking further bites, leave this task to animal control professionals.
- If you find a bat in a room where someone was sleeping or where children might have had contact with them, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you assume the bat has bitten the sleeper or children and take the step for a known bite. CDC suspects that adults may overlook and children may underreport the bites of tiny bat teeth.
- Timely treatment after a bite or other exposure is 100 percent effective. The very few people who die from rabies are those who don't get timely treatment.
World Rabies Day
Since its launch in 2007, World Rabies Day has helped educate over 200 million people and vaccinated millions of dogs through events in 150 countries. Globally, World Rabies Day is important because most deaths from rabies occur in countries with inadequate public health resources and limited access to preventive treatment. Since 1982, the World Health Organization has recommended vaccination—rather than removal—of free-roaming dogs to control rabies.