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Eight Things You Thought You Knew About Rabies

By Chris Williams on August 27, 2015.
Racoon

Every summer we hear news stories about someone being exposed to a wild animal that turned out to be rabid. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation trains wildlife control operators and offers these clarifications challenging what you thought you knew about rabies.

1. Despite what you’ve heard, you are most likely to get rabies from an unvaccinated pet, rather than from a wild animal. In my area recently a small boy was bitten by a stray kitten that was found to be rabid. Even indoor cats should be vaccinated because if an infected bat gets inside, the cat will probably chase it. If the bat is sick with rabies, the cat has a better chance of catching it and being exposed to the rabies virus.

2. Despite what you’ve heard, a pet that has been exposed to rabies does not have to be killed. A pet that has been vaccinated against rabies can receive a booster to keep it from developing rabies. An unvaccinated pet can be quarantined and observed for several months at the owner’s expense.

3. Despite what you’ve heard, only mammals can get rabies — not birds, or reptiles such as snakes and turtles, and not frogs or other amphibians. In the Northeast, rabies is most common in skunks, bats, and raccoons. It’s extremely rare in small rodents such as squirrels, mice, or rats, or in rabbits or opossums.

4. Despite what you’ve heard, a nocturnal animal that’s active during the day is not necessarily rabid. Healthy female raccoons, for example, sometimes feed during the day, especially during the spring, when they’re nursing their young.

5. Despite what you’ve heard, a shabby-looking animal is not necessarily rabid. Could be a nursing female. The young will sometimes pull at her fur as they feed.

6. Despite what you’ve heard, rabies is not transmitted only by a bite. Rarely, a person get rabies from contact with the saliva or central nervous system tissue of an infected animal. You can get rabies if the animal’s saliva gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound or scratch. You cannot get rabies from contact with an infected animal’s urine, feces, or blood (unless the blood is mixed with saliva or brain or spinal tissue).

7. Despite what you’ve heard, not everyone exposed to rabies gets the disease unless they have the post-exposure treatment. But there is no way to tell whether or not you are infected. Only post-exposure vaccination will prevent rabies from developing.

8. Despite what you’ve heard, the treatment for rabies exposure is no longer a series of 21 painful shots in the stomach. Treatment is 6 shots in the arm spread over a period of 28 days. Antibiotics will not treat rabies because the disease is caused by a virus. Antibiotics are used to kill bacteria.

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY

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