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Living With Animals: Rabies

We are such a cranky species! Last week’s column about bats (October is Bat Appreciation Month) led to an anonymous voicemail message complaining that I had ignored the topic of rabies. Really? Do you send nasty-grams to Wine Spectatormagazine when they don’t cover alcoholism? But ok, since you asked, let’s start with a definition: Zoonoses are those diseases which can be transmitted from animal to human, and while there are many (some serious, some not) rabies is perhaps the one that looms largest in the public’s mind. There’s good reason for that. Rabies is almost 100% fatal. The rabies virus is typically transmitted by infected saliva through a bite, scratch or other wound (typically, the bite creates an opening for the virus-infected saliva to travel). Symptoms of rabies vary and can initially be subtle. The only effective treatment is post-exposure (post-bite) injections given before the virus enters the nervous system (before symptoms begin), typically five injections over a two-week period.

Rabies in people is rare in the U.S. (which does not mean that someone potentially exposed should ignore the possibility) but tens of thousands of people die each year around the world. A three-injection pre-exposure vaccination is also available for those individuals (including those who work in places like PHS/SPCA) who are at higher risk.

Infected dogs and cats can transmit rabies but the routine rabies vaccinations given to well-cared for pets essentially addresses that risk. Wildlife accounts for over 90% of rabies in the U.S. The most common wildlife carriers are raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes and yes bats. Squirrels, rabbits, rats, mice and other small rodents are rather unlikely to be infected with rabies and there are no reports of humans infected through these species. Perhaps unexpectedly, cattle are another real risk. Common knowledge is commonly wrong and, as an example, one can’t tell an animal has rabies by look or behavior, although unusual behavior may help identify a likely suspect. The only way to know is to examine brain tissue after an animal’s death. More good reason not to feed or touch wild animals.

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