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:

  1. Call the pet away from the animal.
  2. Confine the wild animal, if possible, without touching it or exposing themselves.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 actual 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.

The following information is taken directly from the Centers for Disease Control rabies information web page:

Human Rabies
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 postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) was given promptly and appropriately after an exposure.