Rabies: Facts vs. Fear
by Lauren E. Masellas, Sanford Animal Control Officer
This seems to be the time of year when the phone starts ringing off the hook for “possible rabid animal” calls. The warmer weather has critters on the move. They are often lethargic and confused after a long winter nap. To help assuage concerns over just how prevalent rabies is in our area, and what animals seem to be most likely to pose a problem, it’s important to separate fact from fear.
Let’s start with a very brief explanation of what “rabies” is. Rabies, known in scientific circles as Lyssavirus is a viral disease that attacks a mammal’s nervous system.
It does this by traveling from the infection site to the brain through the nervous system. There is no way to know if a mammal is infected with the disease during this migratory/dormant phase, which can last up to 6 months. But, rabies is only contagious during the clinic phase of the disease, which lasts about a week to 10 days until the animal dies. Treatments are ineffective in this phase and the disease is fatal. During this phase, the virus sheds into the salivary glands. This means if another mammal, people included, get this saliva in an open wound or mucus membrane (mouth, eyes) it is possible to become infected with the virus. It would be extremely rare to get rabies by any other means (there is a rare airborne form that occurs in bat colonies under unique conditions, not something we need to worry about in Maine). You cannot get rabies from blood, feces, urine or touching (unless they are contaminated with saliva and you have a cut on your hand). That being said, don’t go around trying to pet the wildlife!
Symptoms of a rabid animal vary widely, and many show no symptoms at all. Scientists categorize rabies symptoms as either “dumb rabies” or “furious rabies.” These descriptions are fairly self-explanatory. The more common type is dumb rabies. It manifests itself as a creeping paralysis, lethargy, an apparent lack of fear of humans and repetitive behaviors, like circling continuously in one spot. Furious rabies is “the Cujo” affect. The mammal becomes agitated, aggressive, snaps or bites at real or imagined threats and may “foam at the mouth.” There is no way to tell by looking at an animal if it is rabid, but suspicious behaviors should always be reported.
Any warm blooded mammal can contract rabies. In our area, raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes and coyotes are the primary carriers. It is interesting to note that while raccoons are the most likely victims of rabies, only one human death in the U.S. has ever been caused by the raccoon rabies strain. Of the human rabies cases in the U.S. almost all were of the bat strain of the disease- despite the fact that only ½ of 1% of all bats in the U.S. carry the disease. This is likely due to the fact that bat bites most often occur while the victim is sleeping. Unfortunately, bat bites are like mosquito bites. They are so small, you may never even notice it or realize what it is!
No potential exposure should be ignored! If you find a bat in your home, especially in a bedroom or an area occupied by children, the Center for Disease Control requires the bat be tested. If you, or your pet, are bitten by any animal, wild or domestic, the law requires that you report the bite. If the animal cannot be captured or an owner found, the CDC may recommend treatment as a precaution. Even if you are sure the animal is up to date on its rabies vaccination, no vaccine is 100% guaranteed. Quarantine of the suspect domestic animal (done right at home by the owner) and if necessary rabies prophylaxis treatment is 100% effective!
Thankfully, we have a proactive rabies prevention program in our area for domestic animals. However, it is up to you to make sure your pets and livestock are properly vaccinated. As remote a possibility as rabies infection is, it should never be taken lightly.
Does any of this mean you should panic anytime you encounter a wild or domestic animal roaming around, especially in broad daylight? Of course not! Unfortunately for the wildlife in our area, no one has told them they are not supposed to come out during the day! It is actually perfectly common and normal for foxes to hunt during the day. And a raccoon or other smaller mammal will hunt any opportunity they get in the spring and early summer when they have hungry babies to feed. Those hungry babies will hunt any chance they get when they start to move out on their own in late summer and fall. Rabies will continue to be a concern for everyone, especially in an economy where fewer pets are being vaccinated regularly. You may not come in contact with wildlife very often, but your cat probably does. If you need help getting your pets vaccinated against rabies, or have concerns about wild or unvaccinated domestic animals in your neighborhood, please call. Community effort has made rabies a rare disease in our area, let’s make sure we keep it that way!