More than 50,000 people die each year from rabies, a neurological disease that is commonly caused by contact with saliva from an infected animal.
The virus can affect humans and many animals including cats, dogs, raccoons, bats, skunks, groundhogs, and coyotes. While rabid animals can spread the disease by biting another animal or person, in rare cases, rabies can be spread when the viral saliva gets into an open wound – even from an animal licking an open cut.
“Rabies is commonly contracted by bite exposure,” said Dr. John Bucha, of Harvey’s Lake Veterinary Clinic.
Early indicators of rabies in people are similar to other illnesses – fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. As the virus advances, more specific symptoms emerge and may include anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, insomnia, hallucinations, agitation, increase in saliva, and difficulty swallowing. Death will occur within days of the onset of these symptoms.
“This is a fairly rare disease around here,” Bucha noted. “We have not seen a lot of rabies in cats and dogs. It is more popular in wildlife animals such as foxes, skunks, bats, raccoons, and non-domesticated cats.”
As we continue to develop unpopulated areas, people move into areas that were once forests and wilderness environments, increasing the chance of encountering a rabid animal. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what should be done if you have been bitten by an unknown animal.
In the 11 years that Bucha has been at Harvey’s Lake Veterinary Clinic, he has had several cases evaluated for rabies, but with no positive results. There are two ways animals will present rabid symptoms, the first of which is through behavior. The animal may appear hyper and aggressive. The other clinical presentation is a progressive paralysis, which includes difficulty swallowing.
If you have been bitten by an animal you know has rabies or one that you cannot locate, a series of shots to prevent the rabies virus from spreading will be recommended. If a person is bitten by an animal whose rabies status is unknown, post-exposure rabies vaccinations can be given to prevent the disease from reaching the nervous system.
If your pet has been bitten by a suspected rabid animal, a booster shot is required.
“No vaccine is 100%,” reported Dr. Sharon Finster, of Northeast Veterinary Referral Hospital, in Plains. “Pennsylvania requires a booster after an animal has been bitten by a wild animal or one of unknown vaccination history, even if the animal that was bitten had been current on vaccination.”
If you are not sure if the animal that bit you has rabies, there are several procedures that could help in detecting the virus. If the bite was from a pet or farm animal, observe for 10 days for signs or symptoms of rabies. If, during that period the animal remains healthy, it does not have rabies and you would not need the injections. For wild animals that can be caught, the brain can be submitted to a diagnostic lab for a fluorescent-antibody test to determine if they are rabies positive.
“This 10-day quarantine is to monitor for either neurological signs or death,” Finster noted.
“After exposure, it can take up to 24 weeks to show clinical signs,” Bucha added. “The duration of quarantine has to do with the way the virus spreads,” Finster further explained. “Animals have been shown to shed the rabies virus up to four days prior to showing neurological signs.”
According to a 2010 report by the PA Department of Agriculture, cats are the most common domestic animals diagnosed with rabies in the United States, while dogs surpass those numbers worldwide. Pennsylvania law requires dogs and cats older than three months of age to be vaccinated against rabies, but unvaccinated, free-roaming cats continue to be one of the most problematic species. Rabies in vaccinated animals is very rare.
As with many health-related issues, prevention is the best defense against rabies. There are ways to reduce your risk of coming in contact with animals that may be infected. Most importantly, have your pets vaccinated, keep them confined and ensure supervision, report stray animals to an animal control agency, and do not approach wild animals. Seal cracks and gaps through which bats could potentially enter your home; and, if you plan to travel to a country that has a high prevalence of rabies, consult with your doctor.
“Rabies is not a real common disease,” Bucha said. “But, it can be fatal.”