Friday, December 3, 2010

The truth about rabies

This will be one of our only blogs with no photo attached to it. The reason for this is that, in our experience, humans do not tend to fully read and we do not want anybody to look at a picture and assume that the animal has rabies. We do ask that you PLEASE read this entire blog and help educate yourself.
While rabies, if contracted, is a completely FATAL disease, it is also a completely preventable disease if you educate yourself and take appropriate actions.
We felt it was time to write this blog because CLAWS educates with 3 types of rabies vector species, raccoons, foxes and skunks. A vector species is a species that has a variant (type) of rabies named after it; the variants are raccoon, skunk, fox, bat and dog. Yes dog. And prior to the US adopting an aggressive vaccination program, dogs were the largest reservoir of rabies in the US. They still are in many other countries that do not require vaccinations.
All variants of rabies can be contracted and passed by all mammal species, and all are given the same vaccine for prevention. So, do not be confused by the fact that there is a name for a particular variant.
Rabies is a viral infection transmitted from saliva to blood (bite). This means you cannot contract the disease by petting an animal or having it walk through your back yard. It is actually a saliva to blood transfer, which can only be caused by either a bite or by a rabid animal drooling into a gaping, open wound.
It is also a very fragile disease that lives only approximately 3 seconds outside of the body. So, finding a dead animal, whether it died of rabies or not, is not typically a concern. Since, unless the animal died within 3 seconds of being found, the virus is dead.
Any mammal can contract rabies, and EVERY animal that contracts it does die within 3 months of exposure. The reason this takes so long is that it can take weeks and weeks for an animal (or human) to become sick from exposure. The disease can only be transmitted during the “shedding” (sick) period, which lasts about 7 days. Once that time has passed, the host animal dies. Meaning, even if the animal contracted the disease 3 months prior, it only was capable of passing it to another for the last 7 days of their life.
We hear all the time “oh, it had rabies because it was out during the day” or “it had rabies because it was acting funny”. There are NO true symptoms of rabies. We hear “mad rabies” and many other things that people think are actual variants of the disease. These are just SOME symptoms that can be present; however, there can also be NO symptoms present at all. For instance, being out during the day is not at all uncommon for raccoons except during the summer. They are opportunistic animals/scavengers, who will be out when food is most readily available. The same is said of skunks. Skunks are crepuscular, meaning up at dawn and dusk, both times of day when it’s light outside! These “old wives tales” do not help the animals, nor the humans!
Here is a quote directly from CDC’s website:

“In 1950, for example, 4,979 cases of rabies were reported among dogs, and 18 cases were reported among humans. Between 1980 and 1997, 95-247 cases were reported each year among dogs, and on average only two human cases were reported each year”
This DRASTIC improvement is due to the aggressive vaccination program previously mentioned.

Note that 12 of those cases in humans were contracted while on vacation in countries that do not vaccinate the way the US does.

We get asked SO often, when we are out, especially with our raccoons “does he have rabies”. NO is the answer. All but one of our rabies vector species were born in captivity in USDA licensed facilities, which are required to vaccinate their animals, as we are.
Even though we are very certain that our animals are rabies free, we still do not allow contact with the public and our animals. Not only to protect humans (from scratches, not rabies), but to protect our animals from the mass panic that seems to be prevalent in this area.
Right now, in the US, yes, wildlife are the largest reservoir of rabies, however, feral cats run a VERY close second.
As we teach in all of our programs, if you do not know the animal, DO NOT touch it, whether it be wild or domestic.
If you are bitten by an animal that you do not know, please contact a health care professional immediately. As we said, rabies is preventable. If you get a post exposure vaccine in time, you will NOT contract the disease, even if the animal was rabid.
If your pet is bitten by an animal you do not know, please contact your veterinarian. Even if your animal is up to date on their vaccines, it may be advisable to get a booster shot just to be safe.
Much more information can be found on CDC’s website at

NOTE: All CLAWS permanent volunteers are vaccinated against rabies and get our titers checked every two years. This is NOT because of the wildlife we deal with, but because of some of the exotic species we rescue.


  1. I am currently in Nairobi Kenya where rabies is endemic--I see kittens and puppies being sold eveyday on the road or in the road--is it a good assumption these babies have rabies from their mom as vaccination is rare?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Having rabies be endemic any dog or cat would be suspect. However, I honestly do not feel qualified to answer this question properly. I can tell you that it is safe to assume that their parents were not vaccinated. Babies born of mothers who are shedding the virus typically do not make it long. Very similar to wildlife here.
    I would follow the link posted to CDC and research International Compendium on Rabies there.
    I'm sorry I don't have a better answer for you