How prevalent is rabies and is it always fatal?
Rabies is a virus affecting the central nervous system (CNS) that can be passed from animals to humans. Once contracted, if left untreated, rabies is almost always fatal.
The good news is that humans rarely contract the form of rabies we usually associate with raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats. In fact, there has been one fatality in the USA within the last 60 years associated with the raccoon strain of rabies, and it occurred in 2004. On the flip side, there are 2-3 human deaths per year in the USA, due to unrecognized exposure to bat rabies.
What is rabies?
Rabies, a virus affecting the CNS, is transmitted through the saliva of a warm blooded animal. We most often associate the condition with raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats, commonly referred to as the rabies vector species (RVS). Squirrels, rabbits and other small warm blooded mammals are rarely associated with the rabies virus because although they could interact with a rabid animal, they usually do not make it through the confrontation; therefore, the virus rarely takes hold in them. There may be other reasons why these mammals do not often present with rabies, but they are not known. Bats carry one form of the rabies virus which is different from the rabies virus that a raccoon, fox or skunk would carry – but any form of the rabies virus should be considered extremely dangerous.
If any warm blooded animal can have the rabies virus, how do you know
which wild animals to leave alone?
That is a trick question – because if you are not a wildlife rehabilitator or trained to handle wildlife, you should ALWAYS leave wild animals alone, unless they are truly orphaned or in distress!
However, to respond to that question scientifically, you should understand the life cycle of a zoonotic disease. A zoonotic disease or condition is one that is transmitted to humans from a lower form of vertebrate.
What is the life cycle of the rabies virus?
We begin with the disease agent (the rabies virus) which requires a natural habitat in order to survive. Often finding a home within a raccoon, fox, skunk or bat, the virus works its way to the CNS and then on to the animal’s brain, at which point the virus is ready to leave its initial host. This is when the virus is shed through the saliva of the infected animal and passed on to the new host.
What can you do to prevent rabies?
It is imperative that your pets are vaccinated against diseases, including the rabies virus. Ask your veterinarian about which vaccinations your pet needs.
If your pet is bitten by a raccoon or another RVS animal, be sure to use gloves when attending to the wound. Although you should know that the rabies virus
cannot live for long once exposed to the air, the rabies virus is transmitted via saliva and you may not know how much time has elapsed since your pet was
bitten – so you need to proceed with caution. Be sure to get a booster shot for
your pet right away from a veterinarian, even if your pet has been rabies vaccinated.
Secondly, referring to the life cycle of the rabies virus, specifically as to how the virus is transmitted, there are four important facts to take away:
- An animal can be infected with the rabies virus but unable to transmit it to a new host because it has not reached that animal’s CNS yet.
- Once the rabies virus has reached the CNS and is present in the animal’s brain, the animal can “shed” the rabies virus through its saliva, and it will soon die.
- There is no exact incubation period. The rabies virus could reach the CNS within days or within weeks of entering the body of the new host.
- If not treated, the rabies virus is fatal – and rabies can be prevented.
It is very important to respond accurately when you are asked whether anyone has come into contact with a potentially infected animal. The only way to know for sure whether an animal has the rabies virus is to examine the animal’s brain tissue for the presence of the virus – which will in turn affect the treatment regimen for anyone who had direct contact with that animal. If the potentially infected animal is no longer accessible, there are regulated processes in place to ensure proper treatment.
When we ask that you stay away and keep your children and pets away from wildlife – we are doing it for your safety and for the safety of the wildlife that will be euthanized, often unnecessarily, if you do not adhere to the proper protocol. Please admire our wildlife from a distance.
To learn more about the rabies virus, you can visit Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. To find a wildlife rehabilitator in your area, visit The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) website for a listing of CT state rehabbers.
Special thanks to the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (CWRA) for content included in this blog.