Rabies is a very serious and fatal virus that affects the central nervous system of an animal or human. Although any warm-blooded mammal can contract the rabies virus, it is most commonly found in wild animals such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and bats. The virus is spread through the saliva of an infected animal during the final stage of the disease.
There are two forms of rabies: paralytic (dumb) and furious. The “dumb” form of rabies is characterized by weakness and loss of coordination, followed by paralysis. “Furious” rabies is characterized by extreme behavioral changes including aggression and attack behavior. Both forms are fast-moving and if not addressed before the symptoms have begun, prognosis is very, very grave. Other symptoms include: fever, seizures, dropped jaw, inability to swallow, change in tone of bark, excessive salivation or frothy saliva, muscular lack of coordination, and unusual shyness or aggression. However, many of these signs can also be indicative of other diseases, so although you should proceed with caution, you also need to consider other possibilities.
If you suspect your pet has been exposed to rabies, call your veterinarian immediately. If it is safe to do so, lock your pet in a kennel or other small space by themselves. If you feel you are at risk of getting bit or scratched, contact animal control to catch your pet for you. Do NOT put yourself at risk.
If an animal is up-to-date on vaccines, they will be given an additional dose and then quarantined according to local laws or regulations. An unvaccinated animal that has been exposed to rabies may be quarantined for up to six months, according to local laws and regulations. Unfortunately, the only way to affirmatively diagnose rabies in an animal is through a post-mortem direct fluorescence antibody test performed by an approved laboratory. This test can only be performed after the animal has died or been euthanized.
Although absolutely possible, very few people die from rabies each year. This is due, in part, to the widespread awareness of the disease. Precautions that humans should take include:
- Do not approach or handle wild animals.
- Vaccinate your pets and if possible, any free-roaming cats under your care.
- If you see a typically nocturnal animal out in the daylight behaving unusually, contact your local animal control - do NOT approach it yourself.
- If anyone or anything is bitten or scratched by a wild animal, get medical advice from a doctor or veterinarian immediately.
- Scrub any bite wound aggressively, then go to your doctor or vet immediately.
- If you find a bat in the room where someone was sleeping, especially a child, contact your doctor, health department, or the CDC immediately; it is suspected that the bites of tiny bat teeth may be often overlooked.
Research shows that the disease tends to be more common in different species in different places, but is certainly not limited to those trends. No matter where you live, your pet should be vaccinated for rabies and you should be aware of all the signs and symptoms. Protect yourself, your family, and your pets!