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Veterinary Q & A: Rabies

Rabies Health Alert

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Raccoon - photo by Getty Images / Siede Preis

Raccoon

Photo by Getty Images / Siede Preis
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Rabies - Is it a problem anymore?

Rabies is a real threat - in the United States and in many countries of the world. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

"Each year around the world, rabies results in more than 55,000 deaths – approximately one death every 10 minutes. Most deaths are reported from Africa and Asia with almost 50% of the victims being children under the age of 15."
- CDC World Rabies Day

What is Rabies?
Rabies is a zoonotic disease, a disease that is transmissible from animals to humans. Rabies is a virus known to affect all mammals, including humans. Most commonly, rabies is found in carnivores (meat-eating animals) and insect-eating bats.

The word rabies is from the Latin, "to rage." The classic image of a wild rabid animal is one that is frothing at the mouth, ready to attack anything and everything. This is a stage of rabies called "furious rabies." What is lesser known is another stage of rabies called "dumb rabies." This is where the animal appears sedate, not vicious, and the main sign seen is one of drooling and varying degrees of paralysis.

In other words, what should be a wild animal (raccoon, skunk, coyote, etc.) appears "tame" and a nocturnal animal is seen calmly approaching humans in the daylight. This is a big danger to those people who are inclined to feed or pet these animals.

How is Rabies spread?
Most often, the rabies virus is spread via bite wounds. The virus lives in the saliva of infected animals, and is passed into the tissues of the victim after getting bitten. The virus can also be spread by getting the virus-laden saliva in an open wound, splashed in an eye, or other mucous membrane, such as the mouth.

A rare method of transmission is via aerosol -- breathing in infected droplets. This can happen in a cave housing infected bats -- the wing beats can aerosolize the saliva secretions of the bats1. Important to note: bat bites are very small, and may be completely unnoticed by humans. Any exposure or contact with a bat should be reported to your physician for discussion.

Next page: What happens after being bitten?

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM. All rights reserved.

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