I came back from California to a rabies alert. A rabid raccoon had been found about 5 miles outside my city. The entire community is in a panic. While talking to people I realized that the general public doesn't know a lot about rabies. Perhaps my online friends are in the same category. So, here's some things I thought you should know:
- Rabies is a virus that infects the central nervous system.
- All mammals, including humans, are susceptible to the rabies virus. However, certain species are considered rabies vectors (more likely carriers). These include raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, otters, bobcats and bats. Cats and dogs can also be a concern to the public, especially if they are feral and/or free roaming.
- An animal (or human) contracts rabies through the saliva of an infected animal. It needs to get inside your body to make you sick. This is usually through a bite. There is a small chance that it can come through mucus membranes (i.e. your eyes). You will not get rabies just because a rabid animal walks through your yard.
- Signs of rabies in an animal include aggression, foaming at the mouth, disorientation, staggering and seizures. Many of these symptoms are also present with distemper, a more common disease among raccoons, dogs, cats and foxes.
- Rabies is a relatively weak virus and can't live very long outside of a host. That means if even you touch a dead, rabid animal your chances of contracting rabies are small. That being said, I wouldn't handle a dead raccoon without gloves. There are plenty of other nasty things you can pick up from a dead animal.
- You are not going to die on the spot if you get bitten. (I had a resident who was paranoid about this.) You will have time to get to the doctor. However, don't delay. Thoroughly wash the wound with soap and water then get to the doctor immediately.
- There are anti-rabies medications out there. They're expensive and can be painful, but they are effective. Your doctor will decide whether or not you need them.
- The only definitive way to determine if an animal has rabies is to check it's brain tissue. This cannot be done while the animal is still alive. So, when people tell you that they know an animal is rabid by looking at it, know that they are wrong.
- Just because you see a raccoon out during the day doesn't mean it has rabies. Yes, raccoons are supposed to be nocturnal, but we have totally screwed up raccoons in urban environments. They have learned that if they stay up a little longer they can get free food from humans (garbage cans are rolled out, cats are fed outside, etc.). Also, adolescent raccoons -- like adolescent humans -- like to run around and be stupid when everyone else is asleep.
- Your chances of getting rabies from an opossum are next to nothing. An opossum's natural body temperature is too low to support the rabies virus. How cool is that?!
- Your chances of getting rabies from a domesticated dog are also extremely low, especially if it has ever had a rabies vaccine. (You are more likely to get rabies from a cat, especially one that is allowed to roam outside unsupervised.) However, law requires animal control to quarantine any unvaccinated animal that bites a human. A vaccination that has expired is considered "unvaccinated" for quarantine purposes. Most quarantines are for 10 days from the day of the bite and are done at a veterinary or animal control facility. Owners must pay all boarding fees. Quarantining is expensive and inconvenient. Please, vaccinate your pets.
More information about rabies can be found at the Center for Disease Control.
Thanks to Riley's Place for the great photo
- Remain calm.
- Keep your animals' rabies vaccinations up-to-date. This includes cats.
- If you are bitten by an animal, go to the doctor right away. The doctor will decide whether or not you should receive anti-rabies treatment.
- If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
- Do not handle, feed or unintentionally attract wild animals by leaving food outside and/or garbage cans open.
- This shouldn't have to be said, but . . . never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home. (In some jurisdictions this is illegal.)
- Teach children that they should never handle unfamiliar animals -- whether wild or domestic -- even if they appear friendly.
- Prevent bats from entering homes, schools, churches and other occupied spaces.
I hope you feel a little better now. Be smart and stay safe, -- K