Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area.

Transmission of Rabies

All species of mammals are susceptible to rabies virus infection, but only a few species are important as reservoirs for the disease, labeled rabies vector species (RVS). They are raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. Several species of insectivorous bats are categorized as RVS also.

Transmission of the rabies virus usually begins when saliva of an infected animal is passed to an uninfected animal. The most common mode of rabies virus transmission is through the bite and virus-containing saliva of an infected animal. Though transmission has been rarely documented via other routes such as contamination of mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, nose, mouth), aerosol transmission, and corneal and organ transplantations. (Source: CDC)

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hyper-salivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms. (Source: CDC)

Any person having contact with an animal suspected of being rabid should immediately seek medical treatment. If a bite has occurred immediate cleansing of the wound is recommended and then seek medical attention. Once the classic symptoms begin to manifest it is too late to receive life-saving treatment and the virus will run its course.

Rabies symptoms in animals include:

Paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles resulting in the well-known symptom of foaming at the mouth.

Disorientation, incoordination and staggering may occur (ataxia), caused by paralysis of the hind legs.

Other classic signs of rabies include loss of appetite, weakness, seizures and sudden death.

Vaccinating all pets against rabies is a necessity to aid in prevention of spreading the disease as well as protecting your pet should they encounter a rabid animal. While it may seem unnecessary to vaccinate an animal that is kept strictly indoors, such as a “house cat,” the possibility of a rabies-infected animal coming into contact with them is not guaranteed. A known incident of a rabid bat entering a house and then was chased by the three house cats living there, ended sorrowfully when it was learned they had not been vaccinated for rabies and had to be euthanized.

Nocturnal wild animals are generally not seen during the day confining their food gathering activities to periods after dark. Sometimes, though, they are forced to be out during daytime and this “unusual” behavior elicits a fearful reaction in people. Too often the automatic assumption is they are sick and need to be captured and killed before they cause harm to people or their pets. Familiarizing yourself with normal behavior of an animal will help with deciding to leave the animal to come and go without interference, or notifying the local ACO of the animal’s existence.

Sick animals will appear sick. They will not be engaged in food gathering or general activities but exhibit behaviors of indifference to their surroundings, approach people or domestic animals, have an outwardly disheveled appearance with poor fur quality and other outward signs. First and foremost these animals should not be approached by people or pets. Notifying the local Animal Control Officer or health agent should be done immediately. If the animal continues to wander prior to the arrival of these officials, keeping track of them and notifying others that could be impacted by possible contact is suggested.