How do animals and people get rabies?
There are several ways the rabies virus is spread. The most common way is being bitten by an animal infected with the virus.
Rabies is spread when broken skin or mucous membranes (skin found in the eyes, nose and mouth) comes into contact with infected matter (saliva or nerve tissue) from a rabid animal (i.e., scratches, touching drool or brain material).
Once the rabies virus has entered an animal's body, it can follow the nervous system and eventually reach the brain, causing an infection. The virus then travels to the salivary glands and is shed in the saliva of the infected animal.
Rabies can then be spread to other animals and people. The time between contact with the rabies virus (an exposure) and when visible signs of illness first appear (rabies infection in the brain) varies from a few days to several months.
What does a rabid animal look like?
You cannot tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it. In the very early stages of the rabies infection in the brain, there may not be any clear signs of illness. As the disease progresses, obvious signs of illness may appear.
The behavior of animals with rabies may seem strange. They may appear unusually tame and friendly; with no fear of humans (healthy wild animals usually maintain a distance and run away if approached). They may also appear restless and very aggressive, often biting at real and imaginary things. They may even drool.
As the disease advances, a rabid animal may have difficulty walking or even moving. Eventually the animal will die, usually within several days from the appearance of clinical signs.
What should you do if exposed?
If you believe you have been exposed to the rabies virus in any way, wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water for 10 minutes. Seek medical attention immediately. A doctor will assess the risk and decide whether preventive treatment for rabies is necessary.
Treatment for an exposure to rabies includes wound care and a series of injections. Unlike years ago, vaccines are no longer given in the stomach. They are usually given in the arm. Irritation from the injections is slight, similar to that felt during routine injections. The treatment is extremely effective, but it must be started as soon as possible following an exposure to any animal that may have rabies.
If a person's treatment is delayed until symptoms of rabies appear, the treatment is not effective and death is likely.
Rabies testing can be done on an animal suspected of having the disease. This is very useful if the animal has bitten someone, because it helps doctors decide on proper treatment.
How can you prevent rabies?
Awareness and prevention are the keys to reducing exposures to animals that may have rabies.
Quick treatment is critical to preventing the disease if exposure occurs.
Take the following steps:
Be a responsible pet owner:
- Vaccinate all household pets for rabies according to your veterinarian's recommendations.
- Don't allow your pets to run unsupervised. Always keep pets in at night to prevent encounters with wild animals.
- Spay and neuter your pets. This helps reduce the number of unwanted dogs and cats that become strays.
- If your pet has been exposed to a potentially rabid animal, for example in a fight with a raccoon, contact your veterinarian.
Enjoy wildlife from a distance:
- Do not feed or handle wild animals.
- Never "adopt" wild animals as pets. Do not try to nurse sick wild animals back to health.
- Prevent bats and other wildlife from entering the living spaces in your home, where they might come in contact with people or pets.
- Leave wild animals that may appear abandoned or orphaned alone. Their parents are very likely nearby.
Prevent dog and cat bites:
- Do not pet or handle unfamiliar dogs or cats.
- Never approach a dog that is caring for puppies, eating or sleeping.
- Ask an owner's permission before you pet a dog, even one on a leash.
Go to the hospital if you are bitten:
- Following a bite or other potential exposure to rabies, wash the wound and seek medical attention immediately.