Rabies is a much-feared disease of the nervous system that is fatal to humans if not treated immediately. It is caused by a virus and is transmitted by contact with the saliva of an infected animal, usually through bite or scratch.
The incubation period can last from several weeks to a year or more. There is no known cure for the disease in animals.
Rabies, which dates back to ancient times, has been rare in Massachusetts for decades, appearing primarily in a very small percentage of bats. However, an outbreak of raccoon rabies, which originated in the Middle Atlantic states in the late 1970s, has now made its way to New England. It is one of several strains of rabies now plaguing wildlife in different areas of the United States. It is essential that residents know how to protect themselves, their pets, and other animals in their care.
We hope that answering the following commonly asked questions about rabies will help demystify this disease and provide the necessary information to prevent needless suffering or loss of life.
How will I know if an animal is rabid?
You can’t be completely sure that an animal has rabies just by looking at it, because the signs of rabies are extremely variable and the symptoms often resemble those of other diseases. Animals with rabies sometimes become aggressive, have seizures, and attack people and other animals or objects. Rabid animals also sometimes act confused and disoriented, show signs of paralysis, and make hoarse vocal sounds. They may also just stand and stare. Any wild animal that acts tame and friendly should also raise suspicion of rabies.
If you see an animal that you suspect to be rabid, don’t try to deal with it yourself. Call your local animal control officer, animal inspector, police department, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for assistance (see numbers listed below).
What animals carry rabies?
All mammals can contract rabies, but the current outbreak primarily affects raccoons, with some spillover into skunks, foxes, and occasionally woodchucks (also known as groundhogs). Birds, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice and other small rodents are rarely affected. Snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, fish and insects do not get rabies.
What can I do to avoid rabies?
Pets are the most common link between rabid wildlife and humans. The most important preventative step you can take is to be sure your dogs and cats are up to date on their rabies vaccinations — for your sake and theirs. Even indoor cats should be vaccinated since they can accidentally get out, and infected animals can get in. Do not let your pet roam free, and do not feed them outside. If you keep a bird feeder, clean up spilled birdseed to avoid attracting other forms of wildlife. Consult your veterinarian about vaccinating livestock, since they can also contract rabies.
Avoid stray cats and dogs, and teach your children not to touch animals they don’t know.
Enjoy wild animals from a distance. Never handle or attempt to pet or feed them. Do not keep wildlife as pets; there are no rabies vaccines approved for use in wild animals. Keep your trash can in a closed garage or shed. Use raccoon-proof lids on garbage day. Keep wildlife from living in and around you house by sealing holes and screening chimneys. If you have raccoons, skunks, or other wild animals living in your house, call or write the MSPCA for a copy of its “Critter Proofing” brochure for advice on humane ways to encourage them to leave before you seal their entryways.
What should I do if my pet comes in contact with a potentially rabid animal?
Always try to identify the animal your pet has had contact with before it runs off; observe its behavior and appearance and, if it is a domestic animal, look for the presence of a collar and ID tags.
For your own protection, wear rubber gloves when handling any pet that may have come in contact with a rabid animal. Until it dries (usually in a couple of hours), a rabid animal’s saliva on your pet’s fur can spread rabies to you and other pets through contact with your eyes, nose, and mouth, or through an open cut or wound in your skin.
Contact your local animal control officer, animal inspector, police department, or the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife immediately to report the incident and ask for assistance in removing the suspect animal if it is dead or still present in the area. Your local officials may want to have it tested for rabies.
Wash you pet’s wounds thoroughly with warm soapy water for 10 minutes with gloved hands, then call your veterinarian or emergency animal hospital immediately. Any animal bite, regardless of whether the attacking animal is suspected of having rabies, is an emergency situation requiring immediate veterinary attention. It is essential to see a veterinarian even if your pet has no apparent wounds.
Even if your pet is up to date on its rabies vaccination, your veterinarian will want to give it a booster to ensure its protection from rabies.
What if my child is bitten or otherwise comes in contact with a potentially rabid animal?
The Department of Public Health recommends that you wash any wounds thoroughly with warm soapy water for 10 minutes, then call your pediatrician or go to your local emergency room immediately. Obtain as much information as possible about the suspect animal. If it was a neighbor’s pet, ask the pet owner when the animal received its last rabies vaccination. Then contact your local animal control officer, animal inspector, police department, or the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (suspect wildlife only) immediately to report the incident and, if the animal is not someone’s pet, ask for assistance in capturing it. It may need to be tested for rabies.
If the animal tests positive for rabies, your doctor will immediately want to administer a post-exposure series of several shots to prevent the disease from developing. These are safe, effective, and no more painful than other vaccinations.
What if my pet bites or scratches someone?
A dog or cat that bites a person or another pet must be quarantined for 10 days — even if it is up to date on its rabies shots. Your local officials will monitor and enforce this regulation. If the animal has rabies, it will show signs of the disease in that time period. If signs of rabies develop, the animal will be euthanized and tested to confirm the diagnosis.
What do I do if I see a sick raccoon, skunk or fox wobbling around in my backyard?
Don’t attempt to kill the animal or handle it yourself. Contact your local animal control officer, animal inspector, police department, or Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for information and assistance.
It’s a sunny day, and there is a raccoon, skunk or fox in my yard. Does that mean the animal is rabid?
Not necessarily. Although these animals are usually nocturnal, even healthy ones may come out during the day. If the animal doesn’t appear sick, leave it alone and keep your pets and children inside until it goes away.
There is a bat in my house. What do I do?
If the bat has not come in contact with a person or pet, close all doors in the rest of the house and open a window to the outside. The bat will eventually fly out. If the bat has bitten or scratched a person or a pet, try to capture it by throwing a thick towel over it. Ease it into a large can, jar, or box, and then cover it. Wash any bite or scratch wounds thoroughly with warm, soapy water for ten minutes, then call your physician, veterinarian, emergency room, or emergency animal hospital immediately. Call your local health officer or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for information on submitting the bat for testing.
Where can I get more information about rabies?
You can call the:
* Massachusetts Department of Public Health — (617) 522-3700
* Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife — (508) 389-6300
* Massachusetts Bureau of Animal Health and Dairying — (617) 727-3018
* Massachusetts Division of Environmental Law Enforcement — (800) 632 – 8075 (nights and weekends)
* Your local doctor, veterinarian, animal control officer, animal inspector or board of health.