Ever since I watched Old Yeller get shot by Travis, I’ve always been afraid of rabies. Any time I see an animal prowling around outside in the dark – especially if I’m out walking my dog – I run for cover. When it comes to pets, my fears are warranted — rabies is fatal in cats and dogs. But what happens if humans contract it?
Fortunately, rabies in humans is very treatable and rarely fatal. In fact, because of pet vaccinations, rabies education, and treatment options, only one or two humans die from rabies per year in the United States even though 40,000 people contract it. But the reason people rarely die from it is because they receive medical treatment which is pretty much 100 percent successful. If you don’t receive early treatment after you contract rabies, fatality is almost inevitable.
How is rabies spread?
Rabies is caused by the rabies virus and spread through a bite or saliva from an infected animal. You can’t contract the virus by breathing it in or petting an animal. All warm-blooded mammals can carry the rabies virus but it’s most often found in raccoons, skunks, and bats. You can also get rabies if the infected animal licks his claw and then scratches you with that wet claw.
What does a rabid animal look like?
Contrary to popular belief, rabid animals aren’t always snarling and foaming at the mouth, although that’s definitely an immediate red flag. Rabid animals can also appear disoriented, be biting or snapping at imaginary objects, or walking unsteadily. The Humane Society of the United States warns that they can also seem tame and appear to have no symptoms or fear of humans. Nocturnal animals – like skunks or raccoons – prefer the nightlife so if they’re out during the day, there’s a good chance they have rabies.
What do you do if you're attacked?
First, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and apply an antiseptic to clean it. Second, go to the doctor. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. And don’t act tough and pretend it’s nothing because rabies bites are a very big deal. Like many other diseases, rabies symptoms aren’t obvious for weeks or months, so it’s important to go to the doctor immediately after the incident. If you wait too long, the virus will travel through the nervous system, spreading to your vital organs and brain. At that point, it’ll be too late for doctors to do anything.
What are the symptoms?
When humans contract rabies, they don’t always show symptoms for weeks or months because the virus is essentially hiding from the immune system. However, some bites will cause a twitching or tingling near the wound. In addition to wound irritation, some people also experience symptoms like headaches, fevers, insomnia, or disorientation. But since they feel like the symptoms of other common illnesses or diseases, some people don’t think they have rabies. The second you are bitten or attacked by an animal, go to the doctor to get treated, especially if you suspect it’s a rabid animal.
How is it treated?
Lots and lots of shots (and not the good kind from a bartender).
If you know the animal who bit you has rabies, you will receive a rabies immune globulin shot as soon as you get to the doctor. The shot will be given as close to the wound as possible to help prevent the rabies virus from infecting you.
If you don’t know if the animal who bit you has rabies, you will be given a series of vaccines (four shots over fourteen days!) to fight the possible infection.
How can I protect myself from contracting rabies?
Go to the doctor if you are bitten.
I can’t stress this point enough. If you go to the doctor right after you are attacked, you will be able to fight the rabies virus. (Remember, just because the animal isn’t foaming at the mouth doesn’t mean he’s not rabid.) But if you wait and put off the treatment, the virus will spread and you will greatly reduce your chances of survival.
Stay away from wild animals.
Especially raccoons and bats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that raccoons have rabies more than any other animal, but bats cause the most rabies in people, mainly because bat bites are small and people don’t always know they’ve been bitten. If you’re bit by a bat – no matter how small the bite – go to the doctor. Although little (and ugly and terrifying), bats pack a big punch.
Vaccinate your pets.
Not only will you keep yourself safe from contracting rabies from your pets, you’ll keep them safe from contracting rabies from wildlife. Since there is no rabies treatment for cats and dogs, it’s fatal once they contract it.
Call animal control.
If a nocturnal animal is out during the day or an animal is exhibiting any odd behavior or symptoms, notify your local animal control. Never handle wildlife yourself.
Don’t be like Old Yeller (or Travis for that matter). Although rabies is terrifying, it is treatable in humans. If you’re bitten by an animal, go to the doctor and receive the treatment you need. And keep yourself, your family, and your pets safe from contracting rabies by staying away from wildlife and reporting any odd animal behavior.