Rabies is a deadly viral disease that infects the central nervous system of mammals. It attacks the brain and ultimately leads to death.
Transmission of Rabies
Rabies is a viral disease transmitted through the saliva or brain tissue of infected animals. It can be contracted through a bite or by exposure through an open wound and in rare cases, the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth.
An infected animal can only transmit rabies after the onset of clinical symptoms. In animals, once symptoms occur, it will usually die within a matter of days. The time between exposure and noticeable symptoms, can vary significantly. Typically, the incubation period is three to eight weeks, but can be as little as nine days or as long as several years in rare cases.
Testing and Treatment
Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies. Currently, the only way to test for the disease is to examine the brain tissue of a dead animal, live animals cannot be tested.
Rabies is preventable in dogs, cats, ferrets and some livestock with a rabies vaccination. For most wild and exotic animals, there are no effective rabies vaccines available.
Only mammals can contract rabies. The most common rabies carriers in Virginia are raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. People most commonly contract rabies via contact with bats. It is possible, but rare, that a bat may bite someone without their knowledge. If you discover a bat in the house, especially in the room of a sleeping person or child, assume an actual bite has occurred, especially if the bat acts strangely (unusually tame). Contact the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health
for more information.
An animal that has bitten a human or another domestic animal must undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine. A rabies-infected animal can only transmit the disease after clinical signs have developed AND once these signs have developed, the animal will usually die within 10 days. If the animal lives beyond the 10th day, it was not shedding the rabies virus at the time the bite occurred. If the animal dies before the 10th day, it can be tested for rabies. If the test is positive, a human bite victim will still have enough time to receive post-exposure vaccinations and prevent the disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies
In animals, early signs include behavioral changes such as anxiousness, aggression or, in wild animals, no fear of humans. As the disease progresses, they develop extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Animals may also have seizures or become vicious. The final stage of rabies involves paralysis of the nerves controlling the head and throat. The animal will produce excessive saliva and lose the ability to swallow. As the paralysis progresses, the animal eventually goes into respiratory failure and dies.
In humans, symptoms may include fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear such as insomnia, anxiety, confusion, partial paralysis, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water).
- Walk your pet on a leash and never let it roam freely where wildlife may be present. Consider keeping pets indoors or in a fenced yard.
- Never touch unfamiliar or wild animals. Enjoy wild animals from afar and never adopt them or bring them into your home, even if they are sick. Call animal control or a rescue group instead.
- If a wild animal seems friendly, do not approach it. Rabid animals will act tame.
- If your pet receives a bite wound from an unknown animal, contact the health department and your veterinarian about a rabies booster. Even if your pet has a rabies vaccination, a booster shot can help combat the disease.
- Avoid direct contact with strays as they may not have been vaccinated against rabies and run a high risk of exposure to wild animals that may carry the disease. Report strays to animal control.
- Feed your pets indoors and make sure trash cans and pet foods are secured so that they do not attract wild animals. Leaving food outside attracts strays and wildlife.
- Keep your pet’s rabies vaccine up to date and store their rabies vaccination certificate in an accessible location. Make sure they wear a rabies vaccination tag as well as a tag with their name, your address and your phone number.
- Prevent wildlife from accessing your home. Prune tree branches that hang over the roof. Use screens on windows and cover small openings (chimneys/furnace ducts).
If You’ve Been Bitten
Because of improved rabies vaccination programs for pets and better treatment for people, rabies cases among humans in the U.S. are rare.
- If you’ve been bitten/wounded by a wild or domestic animal, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Cleansing will decrease the risk of infection. If the animal is someone else’s pet, ask the owner to provide proof of rabies vaccination.
- Report the bite to Animal Control at (757) 385-4444. An animal control officer may contact you to file this report.
- If you are bitten by a wild animal, try to capture it under a box, or at least identify it before it runs away. Don’t try to handle the animal. Call animal control to come get it.
- If it’s a wild animal and must be killed, don’t damage the head. The brain will be needed for testing.
- It’s critically important that you notify your family doctor immediately to determine if you will require an anti-rabies treatment.
- If your pet bites a person or another animal, consult your veterinarian immediately.
- If your pet is bitten by another known domestic animal, consult your veterinarian immediately and ask the owner to provide proof of rabies vaccination. If the other animal is not up to date on his rabies vaccine, report the incident to animal control to ensure that the animal is quarantined appropriately.
If Your Pet Bites Someone
- Tell the person bitten to see a doctor immediately. Report the bite to the local health department. If your pet is a dog, cat, or ferret they will probably have you confine the animal and watch it closely for 10 days. Report any illness or unusual behavior to your local health department and veterinarian immediately.
- Don’t let the animal stray, and don’t give the animal away. It must be available for observation by public health authorities.
- Don’t kill your pet or allow it to be killed unless you have been instructed to do so by the public health authorities.
- After the recommended observation period, have your pet vaccinated for rabies if it does not have a current rabies vaccination.