Rabies reservoirs in the United States

rabies reservoirs

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a fatal viral infection that affects the central nervous system. All mammals, including man, can get rabies. The disease is spread by infected animals, usually through bites, but scratches and saliva contact with broken skin are also possible routes of infection.

What are the symptoms of Rabies?

After an animal has been infected with the virus, and depending upon what animal it is, a few days to several months may pass before signs of the disease show up (incubation period). Two different forms of rabies are possible. In the furious form, the animal is excited, aggressive, irritable, and may snap at anything in its path. It loses all caution and fear of natural enemies. If the animal has the dumb form of the disease, it may appear unusually tame, affectionate and friendly. Staggering, paralysis, and frothing at the mouth are sometimes noticed. Many animals have a change in the sound of their voice.

In humans, the course is similar. After a symptom-free incubation period that ranges from 10 days to a year or longer (the average is 30 to 50 days), the patient complains of malaise, loss of appetite, fatigue, headache, and fever. Over half of all patients have pain (sometimes itching) or numbness at the site of exposure. They may complain of insomnia or depression.

Two to 10 days later, signs of nervous system damage appear, hyperactivity and hypersensitivity, disorientation, hallucinations, seizures, and paralysis. Death may be sudden, due to cardiac or respiratory arrest, or follow a period of being comatose that can last for months with the aid of life-support measures.

How do people and animals get Rabies?

Since rabies virus lives in the saliva of rabid animals, a bite is the most common way the disease is transmitted. People may also become exposed to rabies by being scratched by a rabid animal or if saliva gets into an open wound on the skin, and saliva contact with mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth.

There is no danger from touching or petting a rabid animal unless saliva from that animal gets into an open wound, or your eyes, nose or mouth. Just being in the same room or in the same vicinity as an animal with rabies does not result in exposure.

How common is Rabies?

Over the last 100 years, rabies in the United States has changed dramatically. More than 90% of all animal cases reported annually to CDC now occur in wildlife; before 1960 the majority were in domestic animals. The principal rabies hosts today are wild carnivores and bats. The number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States has declined from more than 100 annually at the turn of the century to one or two per year in the1990's. Modern day prophylaxis has proven nearly 100% successful. In the United States, human fatalities associated with rabies occur in people who fail to seek medical assistance, usually because they were unaware of their exposure.

Rabies control programs in the United States have made rabies occurrence in humans and domestic animals a rare event. Although rabies is relatively rare in the United States, the importance of rabies prevention should not be underestimated. Estimates of human rabies deaths worldwide have been set as high as 50,000. Developing countries without proper rabies control programs suffer from rabies epidemics. In many of these areas rabies occurs in high incidence among animals (especially dogs) that commonly interact with human populations. This results in a high number of human transmissions and deaths due to the lack of preventative and treatment programs.



Rabies Treatment Before The Onset Of Symptoms

If a human is exposed to the rabies virus post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can be administered. In the United States, PEP consists of a regimen of one dose of immune globulin and five doses of rabies vaccine over a 28-day period. Modern day prophylaxis has proven nearly 100% successful in preventing the virus from completing its natural course. Successful PEP can only occur if administered before the virus penetrates too far into the nervous system (generally before symptoms appear). PEP should be given as soon as possible after an exposure.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, usually given to people at high risk for rabies, may aid in the prevention of rabies, but PEP also must be administered after an exposure in order to be highly successful. A person who was vaccinated before an exposure will generally be able to exclude the immune globulin treatment and have a decrease in the number of vaccine doses.

Currently there is no proven successful treatment of rabies in unvaccinated animals. Currently vaccinated animals can prevent the disease through their pretreatment and/or re-administration of the vaccine.

Rabies Treatment After The Onset Of Symptoms

rabies animalsThere currently is no treatment for rabies after symptoms of the disease appear in humans or animals. Once the virus has reached the brain death is almost always inevitable. There there have been a few documented cases of people who have survived after exhibiting symptoms, but none have made a full recovery. Due to the extremely large number of people worldwide who have died from the disease, these rare cases have no significant impact on the survival rate. Also, the majority of those people who survived were given some kind of pre-exposure treatment (i.e. vaccination) prior to exposure.

There have been no documented animal survival cases of rabies after the onset of symptoms. With the medical and science community focusing their efforts on human rabies treatment, successful animal treatment is unlikely in the near future.

What should I do after a possible exposure?

If you are bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. This will aid in preventing the virus from setting into your nervous system. Medical attention should be immediately sought and your local health department should be contacted to help assess the situation. Medical treatment may be avoided if the animal can be proven not to have rabies. Laboratory testing of wild animals can rule out that the animals had rabies. Quarantine of domestic pets (dogs, cats & ferrets) can show that the animal was not in the infectious phase of the disease and rule out the need for PEP.

Guidelines For Exposure To Potentially Rabid Animals

  • Treat all animal exposures as a potential for rabies transmission. Any break in the skin caused by a bite or scratch is a potential exposure.
  • Immediately wash exposed wounds with soap and water.
  • Seek medical attention immediately and contact your local health department.
  • If the animal is wild or a stray try to contain it in a safe manner. Damage to the head should be avoided because this may make laboratory testing unsuccessful. Have your local animal control or police department take the animal to the proper authorities so it can be tested.
  • If the animal is a pet, obtain the owner's contact information and contact your local police department or animal control. Most states have rabies control laws that will require the animal to be quarantined to determine if the animal was in the infectious phase of the disease.
  • If the animal cannot be captured immediately, seek medical attention and contact your local health department to determine if PEP is necessary.

What can I do to help prevent the spread of Rabies?

Be a responsible pet owner.

  • Keep vaccinations up-to-date for all dogs, cats and ferrets. This requirement is important not only to keep your pets from getting rabies, but also to provide a barrier of protection to you, if your animal is bitten by a rabid wild animal.
  • Keep your pets under direct supervision so they do not come in contact with wild animals. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
  • Call your local animal control agency to remove any stray animals. They may be unvaccinated and could be infected by the disease.
  • Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or regularly vaccinated.

Avoid direct contact with unfamiliar animals.

  • Enjoy wild animals (raccoons, skunks, foxes) from afar. Do not handle, feed, or unintentionally attract wild animals with open garbage cans or litter.
  • Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home. Do not try to nurse sick animals to health. Call animal control or an animal rescue agency for assistance.
  • Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly. "Love your own, leave other animals alone" is a good principle for children to learn.
  • Prevent bats from entering living quarters or occupied spaces in homes, churches, schools, and other similar areas, where they might come in contact with people and pets.
  • When traveling abroad, avoid direct contact with wild animals and be especially careful around dogs in developing countries. Rabies is common in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America where dogs are the major reservoir of rabies. Tens of thousands of people die of rabies each year in these countries. Before traveling abroad, consult with a health care provider, travel clinic, or your health department about the risk of exposure to rabies, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and how you should handle an exposure, should it arise.

Animal Bite Info


What is the purpose of a Rock County Animal Bite Order?

A Rock County Animal Bite Order is a legal order that requires the quarantine of your pet (dog, cat or ferret) if it is suspected of biting or scratching a human. Wisconsin Statute 95.21 requires that the biting/scratching animal be quarantined for ten days to determine if it is possible that a rabies virus transmission occurred between the suspected animal and human victim. If the animal does not exhibit rabies symptoms during the quarantine period this rules out the possibility of rabies transmission. This will also help to avoid costly and painful rabies treatment for the victim.

Why is the ten day quarantine necessary?

Rabies control laws help to prevent the spread of the deadly rabies virus to humans and other animals. Although the possibility of transmission of rabies to a human from a healthy pet is remote in the United States, its high fatality rate warrants the necessity for control. Other countries without proper rabies control experience a high number of human deaths from the disease. If rabies control were eliminated because of the low incidence among humans and domestic animals, the disease would spread into a possible epidemic. Rabies is endemic in nature and will inevitably spread into our societies if not properly controlled. The ten day quarantine has stood the test of time as a way to prevent human rabies. This also avoids the need to destroy somebody's pet in order to do a laboratory test for the rabies virus in the animal's brain.

What are the requirements if my pet is currently vaccinated against rabies?

If your pet is current on its rabies vaccination it must be immediately quarantined to prevent other exposures to humans or animals. Currently vaccinated pets may be quarantined at home, provided the owner can provide an escape proof enclosure or home and walked on a leash by a responsible adult when taken outside. Contact with other humans or animals must be avoided. Only necessary contact to care for the animal is permitted. Within 24 hours of the incident or issuance of the order, the animal must be taken to a veterinarian for an examination for rabies symptoms. The animal must be also examined on the tenth day of the quarantine and one intervening day. If the animal does not exhibit signs of rabies during the ten day period it will be revaccinated against rabies and released from the quarantine. Veterinarians may extend the quarantine if clinical signs warrant. In the unlikely event the animal does exhibit signs of rabies, state statutes require that the animal be humanely killed and sent for rabies testing to a certified laboratory. This is necessary to protect the exposed human from rabies. All expenses due to the quarantine are the responsibility of the pet owner.

What are the requirements if my pet is not currently vaccinated against rabies?

The requirements for a pet not currently vaccinated against rabies are the same as outlined above for a vaccinated animal, except the animal must be quarantined for the ten day observation period at an approved isolation facility (veterinary clinic, humane society, pound). All rules outlined for a vaccinated pet apply for an unvaccinated one. It is important to keep your pet vaccinated not only to protect it, but also to avoid the extra expenses associated with boarding it at an isolation facility and to prevent your pet from being separated from you for ten days.

What are the consequences of not complying with the Animal Bite Order?

As outlined in the Wisconsin Statute 95.21, failure to comply with an Animal Bite Order shall result in a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $1000 or imprisonment not more than 60 days or both. The animal may also be impounded and all expenses due to the impoundment and quarantine will be the responsibility of the owner.

What if my pet is suspected of being exposed to a rabid animal?

If your pet is suspected of being exposed to a rabid animal, it may be ordered to undergo a 60 day quarantine if currently vaccinated against rabies or a 180 day quarantine if not currently vaccinated against rabies. This quarantine is allowed to be conducted in the owner's home if the owner can provide an isolation area that will prevent the exposure to other animals or humans. Only contact with humans necessary to care for the animals is allowed. The Rock County Health Department or the State of Wisconsin will periodically check the quarantine process to ensure it is being done properly. Failure to comply with these requirements will result in an order to humanely destroy the animal and laboratory testing for rabies. This quarantine is necessary to protect the spread of rabies to humans or other animals.

Toddler Dog Safety

Toddler Dog Safety

dogThe goal of the Toddler Dog Safety program at the Rock County Health Department is to teach toddlers how to interact safely with dogs while educating parents and children. The overall goal is to spread awareness and prevent child dog bites.

Each year more than 4.5 million people are bit by dogs in the United States and children are the most common victims of dog bites. When bitten by a dog, children are much more likely to be seriously injured (source: AVMA). Public health professionals from the Rock County Health Department will teach children habits that help prevent and provoke dog bites.

Dog body language can be subtle and young children or parents may not read the dog's body language correctly. Dogs are generally very tolerant, however, there is a difference between a dog that is tolerating interaction and enjoying the interaction with the child. By parents learning how to pick up on dog body language and children learning to properly interact with a dog, it can help ensure a safe environment for both the dog and child.

3 Lessons taught to Toddlers in the Dog Safety Program

  1. How to Meet a Dog Safely - Steps to Safely Meet a Dog
  2. What to do when a dog approaches - Be a Tree!
  3. How does a dog like to be treated - How to Interact with a Dog [pdf]

Dog Safety Resources

Are you Interested in the Toddler Dog Safety Program?

Speak to a public health professional by calling the Rock County Health Department at 608-757-5440 or 608-364-2010.

Enjoy the bark, not the bite!



Information About Rabies and Prevention

Fact Sheet On Rabies

Humanely Excluding Bats From Your Home

Fact Sheet On Rabies

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