Rabies: What You Need to Know

When someone hears the word "rabies", they usually picture a wild animal foaming at the mouth. They might know it's one of those things their dog has to get shots for every few years. The average pet owner might not be too familiar with what the rabies virus actually is. Ask the same question to someone like a state park ranger and they'd tell you a far different story. It is a serious disease that anyone who deals with wild animals, or who has animals that may come into contact with wild animals, needs to be familiar with.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus, just like the flu, the common cold, or HIV. As a virus, there is no cure. Once a mammal (including humans) has contracted rabies, there is a very slim chance of survival. The virus is spread through the saliva of the infected animal and attacks the central nervous system. Most of the well-known symptoms come from the encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, caused by the virus.

Rabies has an incubation time of two to eight weeks, during which the virus inhabits the muscle tissue of the victim, shows no symptoms, and cannot be spread. Any warm-blooded mammal can contract rabies, but the primary carriers are wild skunks, raccoons, bats, and foxes. Domestic animals can contract the virus through contact with a wild animal and should be vaccinated according to state laws. Most states require cats and dogs to be vaccinated every year or every 3 years.

Rabies has three main stages that each can last two to four days, although an infected mammal may not show all three stages during the progression of the disease.

The Prodomal Stage

The first stage is known as the Prodomal stage. In this stage, the animal may exhibit polar changes in behavior. A normally social animal may become shy and reclusive, or a normally solitary animal may become affectionate and friendly. The reflexes in the eyes react slower and the animal may have a fever. They will usually chew or lick excessively at the bite site.

The Furious Stage

The second stage is the well-known Furious stage. The animal becomes very irritable and restless. They can also become very aggressive and attack inanimate objects like their cage or enclosure. They may also begin roaming and seem disorientated for no apparent reason. A classic example of this is a normally nocturnal animal like a raccoon or fox walking around in broad daylight with no fear of humans. This should be seen as a sign of illness and animal control should be contacted immediately; never approach an animal showing unusual behavior.

The Paralytic Stage

The last stage is the Paralytic stage. Paralysis usually develops in the limb that was initially bitten. The animal's bark changes and the characteristic foaming and drooling around the mouth and slackened jaw is a sign that the throat and face is becoming paralyzed. The animal soon dies from respiratory paralysis. Once any these signs begin, there is no treatment available. An animal should be humanely euthanized as soon as these symptoms begin to avoid spreading the virus.

How Does It Spread?

The main method of transmission is by the saliva through the bite of an infected animal. There is a much smaller risk of non-bite exposure. A non-bite exposure is considered a scratch, abrasion, open wound, or mucous membrane which may have come in contact with contaminated saliva or infectious material. Any wound which occurs around wild animals should be washed thoroughly with soap and water before being checked by a doctor. Even if the animal didn't have rabies, most mammals still have enough bacteria to cause a serious infection. Each state has their own laws and precautions in place in case of a rabies bite. Contact your local government for full details on quarantine periods and recommendations.

Controlling The Disease

Rabies is a disease that can be contained and eliminated with cooperation and immediate care from anyone who witnesses a possibly infected animal.

Protect Your Pets:

  • Keep your pet's vaccinations current.
  • Keep your pets on a leash when they leave your yard.
  • Call your veterinarian if your pet is bitten or comes in direct contact with a wild animal (or other pet) that may not have proper vaccinations.

All domestic animals, whether they live in a city or countryside, should be vaccinated regularly and any bite should receive medical attention promptly. Never approach a wild animal, especially one who is acting in a way outside its normal behavior. Any caring person would like to see a "sick" or "injured" animal nursed back to health, but some of these animals are beyond the care we can safely give them. When in doubt, always contact an animal control agency regarding a suspicious animal. By cooperating with these agencies and complying with the laws and regulations set, we can control the spread of this disease.