October 20, 2014
In our modern world it is easy to think that rabies is a concern for times past. But recently, some of our clients have had brushes with rabies-positive wildlife, making this a good time to remind ourselves how serious rabies can be and provide information and resources.
Rabies is pretty serious stuff: An almost always fatal, viral neurologic disease with no cure once symptoms have started. The virus is spread through the saliva of an animal (or person) who is sick with rabies. Most often this means a bite although it is not impossible for it to be transmitted by other exposures; for example, the saliva of an animal coming in contact with an open wound or splashed into the eye.
Rabies attacks the brain, causing progressive neurologic signs such as irritability, agitation, muscle spasms, inability to swallow, anxiety, confusion, delirium, aggression, hallucinations, and seizures. Wild animals may exhibit uncharacteristic behavior; for example, nocturnal animals may be active during the day or normally shy animals may exhibit no fear of humans or pets.
Although many species of animals can carry rabies, in Minnesota the primary species of concern are skunks and bats. Small animals such as rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, rats and mice are NOT a rabies risk in Minnesota. Contact with all wild animals, but particularly skunks, should be avoided, especially if they are behaving erratically. Skunks can NOT spread the rabies virus through spraying another animal with their scent.
Bats are more difficult to avoid because they can find their way into people’s homes, garages, or sheds uninvited where we can come into contact with them or our pets may try (or succeed!) to catch and kill them. In addition, their teeth are so small that people do not always even realize it if they or their pet have been bitten. Generally, any potential contact with a bat (such as waking up to find a bat in the house or coming home to find that your pet has killed a bat) should be considered a potential rabies exposure.
If you or your pet are potentially exposed to a bat (or if your pet kills a bat) it should be tested for rabies. The MN Department of Health has instructions for capturing a live bat on its rabies fact sheet (http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/rabies/rabies.pdf) or you can call your local animal control office for advice and assistance. Once captured, you will need to bring or arrange to have the bat brought to the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus (1-800-605-8787 or 612-625-8787).
If you are bitten by an animal, wash the wound thoroughly and call your doctor immediately to discuss whether further treatment is needed. If you do not have a doctor or need further assistance call the MN Department of Health at 651-201-5414. If you were bitten by a dog or cat and the owner can be located, get the owner’s contact information so you can verify their pet is up to date on rabies vaccination. If you are bitten by a wild animal (bat, skunk, coyote, fox, or raccoon) or a stray dog or cat (or cannot locate an owner), call the MN Department of Health for advice on how to proceed; they can also coordinate with animal control departments to try to capture and test animals that you cannot safely handle.
It is extremely important to keep your pets’ rabies vaccinations up to date unless there is a medical reason not to do so (such as a history of life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine). This not only protects our pets from getting rabies themselves, but vaccinated pets also help provide a barrier to rabies exposure between humans and wildlife, and a valid rabies vaccine affords your pet legal protections if they are exposed to a potentially rabid animal or bite another animal or a person.
If your pet is bitten by an owned dog or cat and the owner can be located, get the owner’s contact information so you can verify their rabies vaccination is up to date. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal or a stray or unknown dog or cat, please contact us. Generally if both your pet and the biting pet are up to date on their rabies vaccines, no further action is needed beyond wound care. If your vaccinated pet is bitten by an unknown dog or cat or a wild animal, we may recommend boosting the rabies vaccine to help provide additional protection. You can also call the MN Department of health at 651-201-6808 for further assistance with questions about a pet’s potential exposure to rabies, particularly if your pet is unvaccinated.
If your pet bites another pet or a person, provide the other party with your pet’s rabies vaccination status. If your pet is up to date on rabies vaccination, generally a 10 day quarantine period (usually at home) is observed. The quarantine is for 10 days because if an animal is sick with rabies at the time of the bite, their illness will rapidly progress and they will die from rabies within that 10 day period. After 10 days, if no abnormal behavior or symptoms are observed, no further action is needed. If during that 10 day period any abnormal behavior or symptoms are observed, you should contact us (and/or the Department of Health) immediately.
If your pet’s rabies vaccination is NOT up to date, what happens will vary on a case by case basis. In the worst case scenario, your pet may be euthanized and tested for rabies. Alternatively, the Department of Health may consider a quarantine of 6-12 months which is usually NOT a home quarantine. This is part of why it is so important to keep your pet’s rabies vaccination up to date.
Please contact us if you have any other questions about rabies. Additional information about rabies can be found at: