What is rabies and what does it mean to me?

Rabies is an infectious disease of warm-blooded animals, including man. The rabies virus is thought to have originated in bats. The virus survives only in living animals and does not exist in the environment. The virus does not infect birds or cold-blooded creatures such as reptiles and amphibians. Although small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels and mice can be infected with rabies, these species are considered a low risk for transmitting the disease.

Rabies is more likely to infect mammals such as dogs, mongooses, skunks, coyotes, raccoons or foxes. In all species, the saliva of infected animals contains live rabies virus particles, which can spread to a new host via bites or scratch wounds. Rabies can also be spread by aerosol (saliva droplets in the air) in caves inhabited by large numbers of infected bats.

In the United States, humans are most often infected by bats. Infected domestic animals, including cats, dogs, horses and cattle, can also transmit rabies to man. Protecting your pets from rabies via regular vaccination is important to reduce the potential of transmission of rabies to your pets and to humans.

Laws in each state require regular rabies vaccination of pets. To learn how these laws apply in your state, please contact your local veterinarian. In all instances animal bites, including those from vaccinated pets, are treated seriously. Dog bites should be reported to a physician. Public health officials often require quarantine of vaccinated dogs or euthanasia and rabies testing of non-vaccinated animals.

While extremely rare in the United States, human deaths are still caused by bites inflicted by unvaccinated rabid dogs in many countries. It is very important to seek post-exposure treatment immediately if ANY animal bites you, especially while traveling outside the United States. Post-exposure treatments for humans are no longer a series of abdominal injections and these treatments are very successful in preventing rabies if begun immediately following exposures. Travelers are often unaware that in certain countries the risk of rabies exposure, even from what seem to be pet dogs, can be very high.