Rabies is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system in mammals. You can protect yourself and your pets from rabies by recognizing the symptoms, avoiding wild animals that may be infected, vaccinating your pets, and seeking prompt treatment if you, a family member, or a pet gets bitten by an animal that might be infected.
Wild mammals account for about 90 percent of rabies cases in North America. The most common carriers are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes. Squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, and opossums rarely contract rabies. Wildlife officials have been using oral vaccines to vaccinate wild animals against rabies in many states.
A wild animal infected with rabies may behave in characteristic ways. It may become agitated, drool excessively, and bite or snap at real or imaginary objects, or it may appear tame and have no fear of humans. An animal may also seem wobbly, partially paralyzed, or disoriented and may walk in circles or mutilate itself. However, these behaviors could also be signs of another disease, such as distemper or lead poisoning. If an animal that is usually nocturnal, such as a raccoon or skunk, is active during the day, it may be infected with rabies. You should seek help from a professional trained to deal with wildlife.
Rabies is rare in humans. Only 28 fatal cases have been reported in the United States in the past 10 years. Most cases involved people who were bitten by bats and didn’t know it. Only one person has died from a rabid raccoon.
Rabies is spread through saliva a few days before the infected animal dies. It is not spread through blood, urine, or feces or through the air. Rabies cannot be spread through unbroken skin. The virus can only survive in saliva and quickly dies when an infected animal’s saliva dries up.
To protect yourself from rabies, you should avoid wild animals, especially if they appear sick. Get your pets and any stray animals that you care for vaccinated. If a human or pet is bitten by a wild animal, flush the wound with water and clean it with antiseptic soap, if possible. Then seek immediate treatment from a doctor or veterinarian. If you find a bat in a room where a person was sleeping or where a child could have come into contact with it, assume that the person was bitten and take appropriate action. Getting prompt treatment can ensure that the person or pet will not die from rabies.