Rabies is a viral disease that can be transmitted from wild animals to humans, our pets, and livestock. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of infected animals and is classically transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. Once infection occurs, the virus spreads to the brain and causes inflammation in the brain also known as encephalitis. Rabies is almost always fatal.
How Long Can the Rabies Virus Survive?
The virus cannot live outside of the body for more than a couple of seconds, which is good news. Live virus, however, can be found in deceased animals for as long as 48 hours.
How Is the Rabies Virus Transmitted?
The classic method of transmission is through a bite or a scratch from a rabid animal; however, other methods of transmission are possible. Introduction of the virus into a fresh wound or through contamination of a mucous membrane (i.e., eyes, nose, mouth). It is also reported that transmission is possible when breathing in air in bat-infested caves.
What Are Symptoms in a Rabid Animal?
Although it can take days to months to migrate from the bite wound (or site of contamination) to the brain, once it has spread to the central nervous system the disease progresses rapidly. Prior to infection in the central nervous system, the animal will appear healthy with no outward signs of disease AND the disease CANNOT be transmitted during this period.
Only when the virus has infected the brain will the animal exhibit the classic behavioral signs of rabies.
- The virus spreads to the saliva at which point the virus CAN be transmitted.
- The animal usually dies in 4 or 5 days.
- The first sign of rabies is a change in behavior. Animals may stop eating or drinking and seek isolation. Animals may chew at the bite site.
Symptoms of the second phase of rabies are what most people can relate to (after Old Yeller) and are more prominent. This phase is better known as the “furious phase”.
- Craving to eat anything, including inedible objects
- Constant growling or vocalizing
- Aggressive tendencies
- Irritability or erratic behavior
- No fear of natural enemies (e.g., wild animals may not be afraid of people or dogs)
- Seizures or trembling
Some animals skip the furious phase and enter the final “dumb phase” otherwise known as the paralytic phase whereby their muscles fail to work. Initial symptoms include the following:
- Possible choking or inability to swallow thus giving the perspective of a fear of water
- Dogs will drop their lower jaw
- Animals may drool and foam at the mouth
- Paralysis then spreads to other parts of the body, the animal becomes depressed, rapidly enters a coma and dies.
What Do I Do If I Think There Is a Rabid Animal in My Yard?
- If you see a wild, nocturnal animal (skunk, fox, raccoon, coyote, or bat) during the daylight hours or a stray dog or cat who is exhibiting ANY unusual behavior or any of the above symptoms do not approach the animal and do not try to determine if the animal is sick on your own.
- Contact your local animal control agency or police department.
- If you are bitten or scratched by a wild animal or a stray, immediately wash the area with soap and water for at least 5 minutes, contact a qualified health care provider, and report the incident to your local health department at 719.578.3220.
Can I Prevent My Pet from Contracting Rabies?
- All dogs, cats, and ferrets should have a current rabies vaccine performed by a licensed veterinarian.
- Some counties require it yearly while other counties allow every three year booster vaccinations.
- If you think your pet may have come in contact with a rabid animal (wild or domesticated), immediately contact your veterinarian or your local animal control agency and seek medical attention.