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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

RABIES : What you Should Know

When most people think of Rabies, they think of the classic movie "Old Yeller" and the Stephen King horror movie "Cujo", both of which center around dogs that contract the Rabies Virus. Cujo was infected by a bite from a bat, which is a very likely scenario, as Bats are one of the predominant rabies carrier mammals. Old Yeller, was infected by a rabid wolf. Considering the current population of wolves in the United States, this is unlikely. However, both stories have had a profound effect on what people know about Rabies. And that is actually very little.

Just about any mammal can contract the Rabies Virus. Rabies has different strains or variations. The rabies virus targets the central nervous system, working its way up to the brain. Mammals are susceptible to rabies when a rabid animal bites it. The virus thrives in the saliva and enters openings of the body such as wounds and scratches. They eventually die as signs and symptoms of rabies worsen.

Here in our area there are 2 mammals that are known Rabies carriers. The Bat and the Skunk. This doesn't mean that every skunk and every Bat has rabies, it just means that these two mammals have the highest rate of becoming sick with rabies and passing it along to other mammals. Many people are under the misconception that Raccoons are carriers and any sick raccoon has rabies. In the Eastern United Stated this may be true, but here it is not. And actually most of the sick Raccoons found here are sick with Distemper.

Distemper in raccoons is caused by the canine distemper virus. The distemper virus, like Rabies, is fatal. The virus is contagious and spreads easily among animals. A raccoon with distemper will display many signs associated with the rabies virus and it is nearly impossible to tell the difference without viral testing.

Possible Rabies Symptoms:

Daylight exposure. Normally nocturnal animals infected with Rabies are more likely to be seen roaming around in daylight. The animal does not necessarily need to exhibit irritability to tell that it has the virus, especially when it effortlessly exposed itself during daytime. This does not mean that all normally nocturnal animals seen in daylight are rabid. Young skunks and raccoons are often seen during daytime, especially when they are very young.

Behavior. "Mad dog syndrome" is a term referring to an animal's behavior transforming drastically as the symptoms of rabies get worse. Contrary to the term, manifestations of this symptom can be seen in all animals afflicted by rabies. The animal is expected to become irritable as a result of the developing infection in the nervous system. As a consequence of the irritability, it will attack anybody or anything it sees. It will not show any signs of hesitation to bite other animals, humans included. Undesirable sounds or any noise in general will irritate and anger the rabid animal. It will eat and gnaw anything it comes across, as well as inanimate objects such as trees, chairs or bushes for no apparent reason. Be skeptical of a wild animal that seems unnaturally friendly, and having little to no fear of human interaction. Healthy wild animals will flee or hide from humans, or if cornered or trapped fight for survival. Unless they have been conditioned to take food from humans, which in light of our current subject is yet another reason why you DO NOT TO FEED WILD ANIMALS!
Other examples of wild animals acting aggressive will be a parent animal defending it's young,  it's nest, or territory. It should also be noted that a Rabid Animal will not be accompanied by other animals, rabid or not.

Water phobia. Animals infected with Rabies will not drink water. This is important to note especially in Raccoons. Raccoons infected with Distemper with drink water profusely due to the dehydration due to fever, vomiting and diarrhea. This it about the only notable difference between Rabies and Distemper in Raccoons.

Loss of muscle coordination. As the rabies virus works its way to the animal's brain, will start to exhibit uncoordinated muscle movements. Movements such as swaying and stumbles frequently. The animal will seem to be jittery in its movements. At this stage, the animal will produce too much saliva, which will drip profusely as it continuously loses muscle control. This saliva contains the rabies virus that can be transferred to another mammal if bitten. Look for signs of disorientation. Animals that are stumbling around, running into things or seem to be having trouble finding their way around may be infected with rabies. Many also appear to be turning in circles and falling over frequently. Infected animals may show signs of paralysis of some of their limbs, making it difficult for them to move around. It is also about this stage when an infected animal will be especially vocal. Raccoons and foxes especially will whine, chatter, scream and make other odd vocalizations.

Paralysis. As the animal loses muscle coordination, the symptom of paralysis follow. It's at this stage that the virus begins to damage the brain. The muscles in the jaw and the throat are the first to get paralyzed. At this time, the animal will no longer be able to attack anybody. Paralysis will eventually rule over the system of the animal. As the virus continues to destroy the brain of the animal, it will slip into a coma and eventually die.

According to the Center for Disease Control, rabid squirrels are extremely rare. Although any mammal can contract rabies, rodents and rabbits are not considered animals of concern as either carriers or transmitters of the disease. And usually these animals will die from the attack that would cause rabies before they even contract the virus.

While All mammals are susceptible to rabies, opossums rarely get the disease. This is thought to be due to their low body temperature and the rabies virus not being able to survive the opossums body temperature. Opossums are marsupials.

If you or your pet is bitten, scratched or exposed to a wild animal, see your doctor immediately and report to your local Animal Services, Agriculture or Health Department.

Check with your local and state departments to find out what animals in your area are most likely rabies suspect animals  as this can vary in different parts of the country and world.

This is also why it's important for your pets to be vaccinated and re vaccinated for Rabies.

To learn more about how Rabies is Transmitted, the Incubation Period and Symptoms, please refer to the CDC website:


  1. I am a caretaker of 18 feral cats. Most are spayed and neutered and given their shots. But we still have several new ones that we haven't been able to TNR them.
    They live in the woods and a private parking lot. Along side a merry band of Raccoons. Yesterday I came across a very young Raccoon on the ground eyes shut head not moving and legs were trying to run a race. I quickly called The ACO who came ASAP. And said it had distemper. He took the little guy to humanly put it down.
    Problem is, you know it's very contagious!! And I'm sure you know what I'm going to ask,,if they share a bowl of food with the raccoons, will our cats catch it for sure?
    I hope that the vaccinated cats got the distemper vaccination. I'm very concerned about the cats and the raccoons.. How does the ACO know that it's not rabies.

  2. "most" are spayed and realize that because it's impossible to get them all, you are actually causing MORE SUFFERING by increasing the cat population with your "care program"? Homeless cats have an ave lifespan of 2 to 5 years and inflict immense harm on the wildlife in an area. PLEASE STOP!!