We are all aware of the risk of rabies when handling
strange or wild animals. Probably no one is as concerned about this as
those who must work with these animals in their daily jobs. Wildlife
rehabbers, veterinarians, animal shelter workers, all are exposed to
potentially diseased animals each day.
There are many "old wives tales" about rabies, fueled by
inaccurate depictions of this disease in movies such as "Cujo" and even
"Old Yeller". What are our risks? What are the common symptoms of an
animal infected with rabies?
First of all, you should know that rabies is a very rare
disease. The promotion of rabies vaccines for animals has greatly
reduced the incidence of the disease. That's the good news. The bad news
is that rabies is virtually 100% fatal to animals and humans once it is
contracted and symptoms develop, therefore we cannot take risks with
Rabies, in theory, can be contracted by any warm blooded
animal. This includes ALL mammals and birds. In practice things are much
different. The disease is extremely rare in birds. In mammals the most
common carriers of the disease are dogs, cats, bats, raccoons, skunks,
foxes and coyotes.
Opossums are virtually immune to rabies. This is
attributed to their low normal body temperature, which runs 8-10 degrees
below normal for other mammals.
Rodents such as squirrels, mice, woodchucks, beavers are
susceptible to the disease but their lifestyles are not conducive to it.
It is extremely rare in these animals.
Rabies is most commonly transmitted by a bite from the
animal, but not always. It can be transmitted from a scratch with a claw
infected with saliva from the animal or even from a lick exposed to an
open wound. Even an animal that has saliva on it's fur can transmit
rabies to someone with an open wound.
Because of this method of transmission, it is more
common in predators and other less social animals. Foxes, coyotes,
raccoons and skunks frequently fight amongst themselves for food, making
their lifestyles conducive to transmission. Bats live in close proximity
to each other and frequently bite and lick each other. Stray dogs and
cats frequently fight amongst themselves and with wild animals.
What are the symptoms in animals? Well, certainly not
the "attack-anything-that-moves" or the "search-and-destroy" attitudes
depicted in movies. The most common symptoms are depression,
unsteadiness, convulsions, partial paralysis, heavy saliva production,
runny eyes, runny nose. The animal's throat swells making it difficult
to eat and drink, though they will try. Hence the name "hydrophobia"
(fear of water) to describe rabies.
The most common symptom is, simply, unusual behavior.
Raccoons, for instance, are nocturnal. It is not normal for them to be
out during the day. It is normal for them to flee when approached. A
usually friendly and playful dog retreats, hides, becomes depressed and
declines food and water. When an animal acts in an unusual manner,
rabies must be suspected. The much more common disease of distemper
exhibits similar symptoms. Distemper is not a danger to humans however,
so the animal must be considered "rabid" for the sake of safety.
Where does the reputation for viciousness come from?
Animals such as these will not normally bite or act aggressive to
humans. They use their natural abilities to avoid humans. But when they
are infected with a disease like rabies they do not have control of
their functions. They can't run, they can't hide. When approached, they
feel they have no choice but to be aggressive and bite. But they do not
roam the earth looking for trouble. They will not "attack" for no
If you observe an animal acting unusually, contact your
local law enforcement, animal control, or wildlife rehabilitator. Keep
the phone numbers of these people handy. Your state's wildlife agency
can tell you the names of licensed rehabilitators in your area. So can
the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Assn. Keep an eye on the animal,
but do not attempt to touch or capture it. People who work with these
animals have special equipment making capture easier and safer. But they
appreciate it when the location of the animal can be identified.
It is most important that the animal not be ignored. You
are doing a service to the animal and others animals by seeing that the
animal is captured. A sick animal will only infect others, and if the
disease is not rabies, it can be treated and later released by a
rehabber. In any case, it is the compassionate and responsible action to
see that the animal is captured.
What precautions should we take? Persons who work with
these animals should receive the pre-exposure rabies vaccine on a
regular basis. All persons with companion animals need to be sure their
animals are current with all vaccines. This is crucial to prevent the
Always wear gloves when handling any wild or unfamiliar
animal. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling any wild or
unknown animal. If you are bitten or scratched by a wild or unfamiliar
animal, thoroughly wash the wound immediately and notify your local
health department. The animal will be quarantined for observation for
10-14 days. If the animal dies it will be tested for rabies. In some
cases the animal may be euthanized to be tested.
If you are bitten and the animal escapes, you must
report the bite and undergo the series of vaccinations to prevent
rabies. The modern rabies vaccine is nothing to fear. It is three
injections in the arm. This is given when the bite is received, 7 days
later and 21 days later. The shots are no more painful than a tetanus
shot. Side affects are mild and usually of no concern. The horror
stories of the "days" are long gone. There is absolutely no excuse to
risk contracting a deadly disease.
Rabies is nothing for us to fear or alter our lives for.
Human contraction of the disease is extremely rare because of our
precautions and modern medicine. But it is something we should be aware
of and know how to deal with...for our sake and the animal's.
National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association
14 N. 7th Ave
St. Cloud, MN 56303-4766
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