The following is a guest post by a licensed veterinarian Dr. Tim Julian of Spadina Animal Hospital in Toronto, Ontario.
The rabies virus is accompanied by a litany of extreme images. Instantly visions of snarling, drooling, vicious dogs and rabid, wild, aggressive raccoons are conjured. Many common preconceptions about rabies are true, but there are lots of myths and lesser-known facts as well. Here are a few facts you may or may not have known about rabies.
Most human rabies cases are caused by bats
Since 2003, there have been 19 cases of rabies caused by animals in the United States: 15 of these rabies cases have been linked to bats. Of those, 7 were caused by bat bites, another 5 by recent contact with bats, and 3 were later diagnosed with a bat strain of the rabies virus.
Since bats are the most likely vectors for transmitting rabies to humans, infectious disease authorities recommend being extremely cautious following any bat interactions. or instance, if child has had exposure to a bat at all—even contact with clothes—it’s suggested to initiate post-exposure protocols. That means vaccination and treatment against rabies. It’s just too dangerous a risk to take with kids.
Rabies is transmitted by saliva
The rabies virus is found in the saliva, brain, and nervous tissue of infected animals. Blood, feces, and urine cannot transmit the virus. Most infections will occur directly by animal bites. If you come into contact with the saliva of a rabid animal, it is also possible (though much less likely) to contract the disease through scratches and wounds. You can even contract rabies if saliva contacts mucus membranes like your eyes or mouth.
If you have any exposure to a suspected rabid animal, whether from a bite or saliva, you should seek immediate medical assistance.
Protect your hands, face, and neck
If you’re ever face-to-face with a rabid animal, don’t get bitten at all. If you’re bitten by an animal, certain areas are worse than others, such as your hands, face, or your neck. This is because rabies is transmitted along nerves to the brain. These regions of the body contain more nerves than others, meaning there’s an increased risk of developing rabies if you’re bitten in these spots.
You can survive a rabies infection
When treatment for rabies is initiated soon after exposure, you’ll survive the infection. This treatment is called post exposure prophylaxis (PEP). The most important treatment is to flush and clean any infected wounds with soap and water for 15 minutes, as soon as possible after exposure. A series of rabies vaccinations and local treatments with rabies antibodies is also critical to a positive outcome.
If PEP is started before symptoms of rabies start (usually at least 2 days after exposure), then treatment is successful almost 100% of the time. Being exposed to rabies is definitely an emergency that requires urgent treatment.
Vaccination protects you and your pets
All recent cases of rabies in the United States have been caused by infected wildlife, but this is not the case worldwide. More than 90% of rabies cases worldwide are transmitted by domestic or stray dogs. These dramatic numbers underscore the effectiveness of modern vaccination protocols for pets.
Vaccination for kittens and puppies starts at 12 to 16 weeks of age. This vaccination is given again 1 year later and then bolstered throughout life every 1 to 3 years, depending on the vaccine used. In many countries, it’s the law to have domestic pets vaccinated against rabies. If you’re going out of the country with your pet, you’ll need proof of up-to-date rabies vaccinations.
In cats, it’s important to always vaccinate with non-adjuvanted vaccines. Cats are susceptible to forming vaccination-site sarcomas, which are dangerous tumours. Using adjuvanted vaccines carries a 10x-increased risk of developing these tumours, compared to modified-live vaccines (non-adjuvanted). There are 1- and 3-year versions of the safer modified-live vaccine. Be certain to talk to your veterinarian about the type of vaccine your feline companion is receiving.
Dogs and cats may be quarantined after biting a human
Any incident of a dog or cat bite with the potential for rabies transmission will initiate a quarantine protocol for the pet. If your pet is up-to-date with their rabies vaccinations, then any quarantine will only last for 10 days. These quarantines can take place with a veterinarian, at an animal shelter, or even at home. At the end of the 10 days, a veterinarian to determine if there are any signs of illness will examine your pet.
If your pet is not up-to-date on their vaccinations and is involved in a biting incident, there are far more serious repercussions. This may mean months of quarantine, or at worse euthanasia. It’s imperative that you vaccinate your pet for rabies for its personal well-being and public safety.
All warm-blooded animals can be infected
The most common species to act as reservoirs of the rabies infection in North America are bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Smaller mammals rarely carry the disease, since they rarely survive the initial bite. Stray and domestic dogs, cats, and cattle are the other most commonly infected species.
Not all animals with rabies are aggressive
For rabies prevention, it’s important not to handle or feed any wildlife. Most, but not all, animals infected with rabies will develop aggression and excitability. Not offering food or attempting to pet wildlife is the safest way to prevent any bites and potential infections.
After infection with the rabies virus, it can take anywhere from a couple weeks up to 6 months for the infection to incubate and produce symptoms. Classic symptoms of rabies involve behavioural changes, excessive salivation, and progressive paralysis. Once symptoms begin to develop the disease progresses quickly, often eliminating its host in under a week.
Human and pet rabies infections are rare in developed countries
Rabies in the developing world is a modern-day public health success story. Rabies is no longer the prevalent and devastating disease it once was. Courtesy of amazing post-exposure prophylaxis and vaccination protocols, the days of distressing situations that should be confined to classic movies, are ancient history. We should take note that developing countries have not been as effective at managing the deadly disease. This serves as a reminder that the current precautions in place for rabies exposures and prevention need to continue to be respected to keep the public safe from rabies.
Dr. Tim Julian is a Toronto veterinarian and owner of Spadina Animal Hospital. As a veterinarian, Dr. Julian harbors a special interest in neurology and alternative Eastern medicine like acupuncture and herbal remedies.
- Dyer JL et al (2014) Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2013. J Am Vet Med Assoc 245:1111–1123
- Guidance Document for the Management of Suspected Rabies Exposures, 2013