Dog Rabies: Questions and Answers

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Rabies is a much–feared disease of the nervous system that dates back to ancient times. It is caused by a virus and is transmitted by contact with the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. The incubation period can last from several weeks to a year or more. There is no known cure for the disease in animals. If not treated immediately, the disease is also fatal in humans.

Rabies has been rare for decades, appearing primarily in a very small percentage of bats. However, an outbreak of raccoon rabies, which originated in the Mid-Atlantic States in the late 1970s, has now made its way to New England. It is one of several strains of rabies currently plaguing wildlife in different areas of the United States. It is essential that residents know how to protect themselves, their pets, and other animals in their care.

We hope that answering the following commonly asked questions about rabies will help demystify this disease and provide the information necessary to prevent needless suffering or loss of life.

Q. How does an animal get rabies?

A. Rabies is a virus that is transmitted from saliva to an open wound. The most common route of infection is from a bite from a rabid animal. Once bitten, the virus travels from the saliva of the rabid animal along the nerves of the victim to the spinal cord and then up to the brain. Once the virus reaches the brain, abnormal behavior begins. As the rabies virus travels up the nerves and spinal cord, the animal is unable to transfer the virus to another animal or person. A short time after reaching the brain, the virus is in the salivary glands and is shed in the saliva. At this point, the animal or person is considered contagious and usually dies from the disease within 10 days. The length of time it takes to develop the signs of rabies varies, depending on where the initial bite occurred in relation to the brain. Animals bitten on the tips of the rear toes will take longer to develop rabies than bites on the tip of the nose.

Q. What is the purpose of quarantine?

A. Quarantine is frequently done to prevent euthanasia of a pet. If an animal has bitten someone and the rabies status is unknown or vaccination is overdue, testing for rabies is not a good alternative, since this requires euthanasia. By keeping a pet in quarantine, his behavior and health can be monitored. If the pet dies within the quarantine time, testing for rabies is crucial. If the pet develops no illness or behavior changes during the time of quarantine, the pet is considered not to have been actively contagious for rabies when the bite occurred. It does not mean that the pet is free from rabies. If the virus was traveling up the nerves and spinal cord at the time of the bite, no transmission of the virus occurred, although the pet is still is harboring the virus.

Q. How will I know if an animal is rabid?

A. You can't be completely sure that an animal has rabies just by observation because the signs of rabies are extremely variable and the symptoms often resemble those of the other diseases. Animals with rabies sometimes become aggressive, have seizures and attack people and other animals or objects. Rabid animals sometimes act confused and disoriented, show signs of paralysis and make hoarse vocal sounds. They may also just stand and stare. Any wild animal that acts tame or friendly should also raise the suspicion of rabies. A suspected animal can be tested for rabies. Unfortunately, a brain biopsy is required and the animal must be euthanized in order to perform the test.

If you see an animal that you suspect may be rabid, stay away. Call your local animal control officer, veterinary clinic or police department.

Q. What animals carry rabies?

A. All mammals can contract rabies but the virus primarily affects raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats and occasionally woodchucks (also known as groundhogs). Birds, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice and other small rodents are rarely affected. Snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, fish and insects do not get rabies.

Q. What can I do to avoid rabies?

A. Pets are the most common link between rabid wildlife and humans. The most important preventative step you can take is to be sure your dogs and cats are up to date on their rabies vaccinations – for your sake and theirs. Even indoor cats should be vaccinated, since they can accidentally get out and infected animals can get in. Do not let your pets roam free, and do not feed them outside. If you keep a bird feeder, clean up spilled seed to avoid attracting other forms of wildlife. Consult your veterinarian about vaccinating livestock, since they can also contract rabies.

Avoid stray cats and dogs and teach your children not to touch animals they don't know.

Enjoy wild animals from a distance. Never handle or attempt to pet or feed them. Do not keep wildlife as pets; there are no rabies vaccines approved for use in wild animals. Keep your trash cans in a closed garage or shed. Use raccoon-proof lids on garbage day. Keep wildlife from living in and around your home by sealing holes and screening chimneys.

Q. What should I do if my pet comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal?

A. Always try to identify the animal your pet had contact with before it runs off; observe its behavior and appearance and, if it is a domestic animal, look for the presence of a collar and I.D. tags.

For your own protection, wear rubber gloves when handling any pet that may have come in contact with a rabid animal. Until it dries (usually in a couple of hours), a rabid animal's salvia on your pet's fur can spread rabies to you and other pets through contact with your eyes, nose and mouth or through an open cut or wound in your skin.

Contact your local animal control officer, veterinarian or police department immediately to report the incident and ask for assistance in removing the suspect animal if it is dead or still present in the area. Your local officials may want to have it tested for rabies.

Wash your pet's wounds thoroughly with warm soapy water for ten minutes with gloved hands, then call your veterinarian or emergency animal hospital immediately. Any animal bite, regardless of whether the attacking animal is suspected of having rabies, is an emergency situation requiring immediate veterinary attention. It is essential to see a veterinarian even if your pet has no apparent wounds.

Q. What if my child is bitten or otherwise comes into contact with a potentially rabid animal?

A. The Department of Public Health recommends that you wash any wounds thoroughly with warm soapy water for ten minutes, then call your local pediatrician or go to your local emergency room immediately. Obtain as much information as possible about the suspect animal. If it was a neighbor's pet, ask the pet owner when the animal received his last rabies vaccination. Then contact your local animal control officer or police department immediately to report the incident and, if the animal is not someone's pet, ask for assistance in capturing it. It may need to be tested for rabies.

If the animal tests positive for rabies, your doctor will want to administer a post-exposure series of several shots immediately to prevent the disease from developing. These are safe, effective and no more painful than other vaccinations.

Q. What if my pet bites or scratches someone?

A. A dog or cat that bites a person or another pet must be quarantined for ten days – even if it is up to date on its rabies shots. Your local officials will monitor and enforce this regulation. If the animal has rabies, it will show signs of the disease in that time period. If signs of rabies develop, the animal will be euthanized and tested to confirm the diagnosis.

Q. What do I do if I see a sick raccoon, skunk or fox wobbling around in my backyard?

A. Don't attempt to kill the animal or handle it yourself. Contact your local animal control officer, veterinarian, wildlife rehabilitation center or police department for information and assistance.

Q. It's a sunny day and there is a raccoon, skunk or fox in my yard. Does that mean the animal is rabid?

A. Not necessarily. Although these animals are usually nocturnal, even healthy ones may come out during the day. If the animal doesn't appear sick, leave it alone and keep your children and pets indoors until it goes away.

Q. There's a bat in my house. What do I do?

A. If the bat has not come into contact with a person or pet, close all doors to the rest of the house and open a window to the outside. The bat will eventually fly out. If the bat has bitten or scratched a person or a pet, try to capture it by throwing a thick towel over it. Ease it into a large can, jar, or box and then cover it. Wash any bite or scratch wounds thoroughly in warm, soapy water for ten minutes, then call your physician, veterinarian, emergency room or emergency animal hospital immediately. Call your local health officer or animal control agency for information on submitting the bat for testing.

Q. Where can I get more information about rabies?

A. You can call your local doctor, veterinarian, animal control officer, or board of health. Also, read about Rabies.

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