Rabies is perhaps the most widely known by the public of all of the wildlife diseases. This is probably due to the inoculation requirements for domestic dogs and cats and the near 100 percent fatality rate in untreated humans. Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system in mammals and causes severe inflammation of the affected tissue. The disease is most commonly transmitted through the bite of a rabid mammal.
Rabies in wildlife accounts for greater than 85 percent of animal rabies in the United States. Although any mammal could potentially be a rabies carrier, raccoons and several species of insectivorous bats are the major reservoirs for wildlife rabies in Alabama. Skunks, foxes and coyotes are also recognized as significant carriers.
For Alabamians, the most common connection to rabid animals is through their pets. Vaccination of pets and removing stray dogs and cats that are at risk of exposure to rabid wildlife is a basic element of the rabies control program in Alabama. Alabama law requires that all owned dogs, cats and ferrets be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian with an approved vaccine.
Any wild mammal, especially wild carnivores and bats, should be treated as if it is rabid. Since wild animals can have extended incubation a periods, they cannot be considered free from rabies even if purchased from a pet shop (possession of many wild mammals in Alabama is a violation of the law), acquired as a newborn, or held for a long period of time. Animals can acquire the rabies virus not only from bites and scratches with saliva contamination, but some can also become infected via the placenta while in the mother’s womb. Carnivorous mammals can acquire rabies through eating infected prey.
Contact such as petting or handling an animal, or contact with non-infectious fluids or tissue (urine, blood and feces) does not constitute an exposure. Non-bite exposures from terrestrial animals rarely cause rabies. However, people can contract rabies by infectious material (saliva or central nervous system tissue) from a rabid animal getting directly into a mucous membrane (eyes, nose, mouth) or an open wound. Inhalation of the rabies virus has been known to occur, but only in very special circumstances such as in confined spaces or in caves inhabited by infected bats.
The incubation period–the time between exposure to the disease and the onset of symptoms–varies from a few days to several months for rabies. Domestic dogs, cats and ferrets have known incubation periods with symptoms appearing within 10 days of exposure. Incubation periods for wild animals are unknown or extremely variable. As such, the quarantine practices used for domestic dogs, cats or ferrets is not practical. This includes all offspring of wild animals crossbred with domestic dogs and cats (wild animal hybrids). These hybrids are considered by the Alabama Department of Public Health as wild animals for the purposes of rabies exposure. Almost without exception wild mammals that bite humans should be euthanized without damaging the animal’s head and submitted for testing for rabies as soon as possible. Holding them for observation is not acceptable.
Some visible signs that an animal may be rabid include any of the following symptoms: aggressive behavior, attacking for no reason, lethargy, walking in circles, confusion, or appearing to be drunk. Unfortunately, these are often the same symptoms that may occur with other diseases such as distemper. You cannot diagnose an animal with rabies by simply observing the animal. Tests to detect the rabies virus cannot be performed on a live animal. In order to test for the presence of rabies the brain tissue of the suspect animal must be sampled.
Possible contraction of rabies has medical urgency. If bitten, clean the wound immediately by washing the area thoroughly with soap and water. Contact your doctor concerning the bite and obtain medical treatment for the wound before considering the need for a rabies vaccination. If the biting animal is domestic, get the name and address of its owner. If it is a wild or stray animal contact your local health department, animal control office or a professional wildlife trapper for assistance. If the animal is dead, wear gloves or use a shovel to move it. Animals that need to be tested should be put in a heavy-duty plastic bag and placed in a cold area (not a freezer) away from people and other animals. Clean the area where the animal was found with one part bleach to 10 parts water. Call your local health department for further instructions concerning submission of the animal for rabies testing.
The decision to start vaccination is typically based on the type of exposure (bite or non-bite), the animal you were exposed to (domestic or wild), the biting animal’s history, its current health status (domestic animals only, e.g., abnormal behavior, signs of illness), and information for the geographic area where the exposure occurred. Be prepared to give this information to health professionals when seeking treatment.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR visit www.outdooralabama.com.