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What is Rabies?

Rabies is a preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system of mammals, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, although any mammal can get rabies.


The Rabies Virus

Rabies virus belongs to the order Mononegavirales, viruses with a nonsegmented, negative-stranded RNA genomes. Within this group, viruses with a distinct “bullet” shape are classified in the Rhabdoviridae family, which includes at least three genera of animal viruses, Lyssavirus, Ephemerovirus, and Vesiculovirus. The genus Lyssavirus includes rabies virus, Lagos bat, Mokola virus, Duvenhage virus, European bat virus 1 & 2 and Australian bat virus.

What animals get rabies?

Rabies affects only mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded animals with fur. People are also mammals. Birds, snakes, and fish are not mammals, so they can’t get rabies and they can’t give it to you. But any mammal can get rabies, including people. While rabies is rare in people in the United States, with only 1 to 3 cases reported annually, about 55,000 Americans get post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) each year to prevent rabies infection after being bitten or scratched by an infected or suspected infected animal.


In the United States, more than 90% of reported cases of rabies in animals occur in wildlife. The wild animals that most commonly carry rabies in the United States are raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Contact with infected bats is the leading cause of human rabies deaths in this country; 7 out of 10 Americans who die from rabies in the US were infected by bats. People may not recognize a bat scratch or bite, which can be smaller than the top of a pencil eraser, but these types of contact can still spread rabies.


Pets (like cats and dogs) and livestock (like cattle and horses) can also get rabies. Nearly all the pets and livestock that get rabies had not received vaccination or were not up to date on rabies vaccination. Most pets get rabies from having contact with wildlife.


Because of laws requiring dogs to be vaccinated for rabies in the United States, dogs make up only about 1% of rabid animals reported each year in this country. However, dog rabies remains common in many countries. Exposure to rabid dogs is still the cause of nearly all human rabies deaths worldwide. Exposure to rabid dogs outside the US is the second leading cause of rabies deaths in Americans.


How can you tell if an animal has rabies?

You can’t tell if an animal has rabies by just looking at it—the only way to know for sure if an animal (or a person) has rabies is to perform laboratory testing. However, animals with rabies may act strangely. Some may be aggressive and try to bite you or other animals, or they may drool more than normal. (This is sometimes shown in movies as animals “foaming at the mouth.”) But not all animals with rabies will be aggressive or drooling. Other animals may act timid or shy, and a wild animal might move slowly or act tame. You might be able to easily get close to it. Since that’s not the way wild animals usually act, you should remember that something could be wrong. Some animals may not show any signs of having rabies. It’s important to leave wild animals alone, including baby animals.


The best thing to do is to never feed or approach a wild animal. Be careful of pets that you do not know. If you see a stray dog or cat, don’t pet it. This is especially important if you are traveling in a country where rabies in dogs is common. And if any animal is acting strangely, call your local animal control officer for help. Some things to look for are:

general sickness
problems swallowing
lots of drool or saliva
an animal that bites at everything
an animal that appears tamer than you would expect
an animal that’s having trouble moving or may even be paralyzed
a bat that is on the ground


How can you prevent rabies in animals?

There are several things you can do to protect your pet from rabies. These include making sure your pets get regular rabies vaccines, keeping pets away from wild animals, spaying or neutering pets, and calling animal control to remove stray animals from your neighborhood. Many states also are vaccinating wild animals (mainly raccoons) to prevent the spread of rabies. Instead of trying to catch every animal and give it a shot, they use a special type of food vaccine that works when the animal eats it. The food is put out where animals are likely to find it. Sometimes airplanes are used to get food into places that are hard to reach on foot or with a truck.

When should you see a doctor?

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. One important factor in deciding if you should receive rabies vaccination (post exposure prophylaxis) will be if the animal you were exposed to can be found and held for observation. Decisions should not be delayed.

How can you prevent rabies in animals?

There are several things you can do to protect your pet from rabies.


First, visit your veterinarian with your pet on a regular basis and keep rabies vaccinations up-to-date for all cats, ferrets, and dogs.


Second, maintain control of your pets by keeping cats and ferrets indoors and keeping dogs under direct supervision.


Third, spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated regularly.


Finally, call animal control to remove all stray animals from your neighborhood since these animals may be unvaccinated or ill.


The importance of vaccinating your pet

While wildlife are much more likely to be rabid than are domestic animals in the United States, people have much more contact with domestic animals than with wildlife. Your pets and other domestic animals can be infected when they are bitten by rabid wild animals, and this type of “spillover” increases the risk to people.


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.


Moving out of the United States

If you are bringing your pet into the United States, you may be subject to CDC regulations that govern the importation of animals capable of causing human disease. (For example, dogs coming from countries considered high risk for importing dog rabies must have a valid rabies vaccine certificate to enter.)

If you are planning to move out of the country and take your pets with you, you should consult with the embassy of your destination country to see what regulations they have for importing pets.

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