What is rabies?
Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease. It can spread to people and pets if they are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal. In the United States, rabies is mostly found in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. However, in many other countries dogs still carry rabies, and most rabies deaths in people around the world are caused by dog bites.
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system. If a person does not receive the appropriate medical care after a potential rabies exposure, the virus can cause disease in the brain, ultimately resulting in death. Rabies can be prevented by vaccinating pets, staying away from wildlife, and seeking medical care after potential exposures before symptoms start.
How is rabies transmitted?
Rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact (such as through broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth) with saliva or brain/nervous system tissue from an infected animal.
People usually get rabies from the bite of a rabid animal. It is also possible, but rare, for people to get rabies from non-bite exposures, which can include scratches, abrasions, or open wounds that are exposed to saliva or other potentially infectious material from a rabid animal. Other types of contact, such as petting a rabid animal or contact with the blood, urine or feces of a rabid animal, are not associated with risk for infection and are not considered to be exposures of concern for rabies.
When to seek medical attention?
If you’ve been in contact with any wildlife or unfamiliar animals, particularly if you’ve been bitten or scratched, you should talk with a healthcare or public health professional to determine your risk for rabies or other illnesses. Wash any wounds immediately with soap and water and then plan to see a healthcare provider. (It’s important to know that, unlike most other animals that carry rabies, many types of bats have very small teeth which may leave marks that disappear quickly. If you are unsure, seek medical advice to be safe.)
Remember that rabies is a medical urgency but not an emergency. Decisions should not be delayed. Consultation with your state or local health department – will help you decide if you need treatment known as rabies post exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Decisions to start PEP will be based on your type of exposure, the animal you were exposed to, whether the animal is available for testing, and laboratory and surveillance information for the geographic area where the exposure occurred. PEP consists of a regimen of one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period. Rabies immune globulin and the first dose of rabies vaccine should be given by your health care provider as soon as possible after exposure.
Keep your pet on a regular basis and keep rabies vaccinations up-to-date for all cats, ferrets, and dogs. Keeping your pets up to date on their rabies vaccination will prevent them from acquiring the disease from wildlife, and thereby prevent possible transmission to your family or other people.
Many mammals can get rabies, but the most commonly affected animals in the United States are raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes — so the best way to avoid rabies in the U.S. is to stay away from wildlife. Leave all wildlife alone, including injured animals. If you find an injured animal, don’t touch it; contact local authorities for assistance.
If you find a bat in your home, especially in a bedroom, it is important to carefully collect the animal without making skin-to-skin contact and not crushing the head for testing. Take the bat to your local veterinary clinic immediately to get the bat tested for rabies. A bat in the home puts the people living there at risk as bats can make contact with your skin while you are sleeping. The bites are so small, you may never know the bat made contact with your skin. Post exposure prophylaxis should be considered when direct contact between a human and a bat has occurred, unless the exposed person can be certain a bite, scratch, or mucous membrane exposure did not occur, or if the bat tested negative for rabies.