Mad dog. Vicious. Foaming at the mouth. Rabid. Few things grab our attention, or turn our blood to ice, quite like the thought of rabies. Rabies has the power to turn our best friend into our worst nightmare, and create a ravenous beast from rational man. This disease has been with us for a long time; man has been concerned with rabies at least as long as we’ve been creating written records. Ancient Babylonians wrote laws governing dog bites and the deaths they caused. Greek physicians dreamed up fantastical “cures.” The thought of rabies has inspired horror films and novels, maybe even the mythos behind vampires and werewolves.
The most frightening thing about the disease is no myth, however: By the time you know you have rabies, it’s too late. Rabies always kills its victims; the only possible cure involves a medically induced coma, a cocktail of antiviral drugs, and a high potential for brain damage. To date, it’s debatable, but only up to about 10 people have survived full-blown rabies infections. Ever.
Fortunately, rabies is nearly as rare as it is deadly. For all its notoriety, rabies accounts for only 50,000 to 75,000 deaths worldwide each year, most of them in Asia and Africa. Americans have a better chance of dying from a lightning strike than they do from rabies. Per the National Weather Service, lightning strikes killed 27 people in 2015; by contrast, the Centers for Disease Prevention estimate one to two people die from rabies in America each year. And while rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal, it is also 100 percent preventable in humans.
We have Louis Pasteur and his pioneering work on vaccines to thank for that. Vaccinations are effective against rabies, both before and after exposure, assuming they are administered in time. That’s because rabies travels through the nervous system, not through blood, and it travels slowly. That fatality rate of one to two Americans is so low because tens of thousands of people receive vaccinations each year in America, and because conscientious pet owners keep their animals vaccinated.
The rabies virus can affect nearly all mammals, although it is most often seen in dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, and, yes, bats. Opossums seem to be highly resistant to rabies, and there are no reports of small rodents or rabbits transmitting the virus. Genetic mapping suggests that rabies may have originated in bats, crossing over to dogs about the same time dogs stopped being wolves.
The virus affects the nervous system of its victims, causing erratic behavior, poor coordination, fearlessness toward humans, extreme aggressiveness, and famously, excessive salivation (foaming at the mouth) and an unreasoning fear of water (hydrophobia), before unconsciousness and ultimately, death. Early symptoms resemble most other viral infections, with weakness, fever, nausea, headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, and a general lousy-feeling condition, along with pain around the bite area, making them very hard to diagnose accurately.
The rabies virus is transmitted in only two ways: contact with nervous tissue, and with saliva. For most people, contact with infected nervous tissue is highly unlikely. Fortunately, the rabies virus only survives in saliva until it dries out. Sunlight kills the virus. Cold, wet conditions can preserve it. The chance of contracting rabies from saliva on a trash can after a rabid raccoon drooled on it is vanishingly slim.
Rabies is transmitted most effectively by viral saliva contacting an open wound or mucous membranes. Simply put, you must be bitten or have your face licked by a rabid animal to contract rabies. Overproduction of virally loaded saliva combined with fearlessness and heightened aggressiveness turn a rabid animal into a four-legged epidemic. Rabies turns its animal host into an effective transmitter, replacing fear of man with blind aggression, eager to bite anything that moves. Interestingly, rabid animals show two very different forms of behavior: furious and dumb. Furious rabies is the classic “mad dog” form, while dumb rabies paralyses the victim’s jaw. Rabid animals can experience either form, or even both, switching from dumb rabies to furious rabies before dying.
Avoid any animal acting strangely. Most wild animals are nocturnal, so beware of raccoons or foxes wandering aimlessly in broad daylight, especially if they seem drunk or weak and aren’t running away. Contact your state game commission for advice on what you should do about suspicious animals. Do not try to catch the animal yourself. Avoid contact at all cost.
Protect your own animals by maintaining their rabies vaccinations, even indoor pets. Let’s be honest, cats and dogs get out, and wild animals get in, especially when they’re not of sound mind and body. If you keep livestock, talk to your veterinarian; there are vaccinations available for all domestic livestock species.
Keeping your animals’ vaccinations up-to-date protects not only them, but you as well by creating a barrier between you and infected wild animals. While you know enough to stay away from a skunk, rabid or not, your Labrador retriever isn’t quite that slick.
Accidents happen. If you or your animals are attacked by another animal, take immediate action. Clean the wound immediately using soap and water to disinfect it. Capture the attacking animal if possible, for observation and testing. Call your doctor, local or state health official, and law enforcement office. They will tell you what you need to do next.
If the attacking animal can be captured, it will be observed for at least 10 days, or it will be put down and a sample will be sent out for testing. That sample will consist of the animal’s head, or in the case of large animals like cattle, its brain. If the test comes back positive for rabies, or if the animal could not be captured, vaccinations are in order, for you, and for your animal — if its vaccinations are not up-to-date. Otherwise, your veterinarian will recommend putting your animal down.
Animals intended for slaughter can still be used for meat, provided you dispose of the damaged area, handle nervous tissue carefully, and cook the meat thoroughly. Consult your local veterinarian in all cases. Pets can be vaccinated post-exposure, but they must be quarantined for at least six months under veterinary supervision, an incredibly expensive proposition. Keep your animals’ vaccinations up-to-date; it’s much cheaper and more effective, and you won’t have to make a heartbreaking decision.
Human vaccinations used to be almost as terrifying as rabies itself. Until the 1980s, a vaccination series involved 21 shots administered in the stomach, one a day, using a painfully long needle. Things have gotten better since then. Now, a vaccination series calls for a dose of rabies antibodies, administered at the bite site, followed by four vaccine shots, one every three days given in the arm. That’s much better than 21 shots to the stomach. If you’ve had a rabies vaccination before, you won’t need the antibody shot, either.
We can thank vaccination for the greatly reduced rate of rabies cases in America, especially canine and feline vaccination. Not only does vaccination protect your animals, it protects you by creating a buffer zone between you and wild rabies carriers. Vaccination works so well, in fact, that states along the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Alabama, vaccinate wild raccoons using baits containing an oral vaccine.
While contracting rabies from a bat may seem like another rabies myth, the danger here is real, for several reasons. While bats have a relatively low rate of rabies infection — less than 1 percent of the population — most bat-human encounters are the result of abnormal behavior in infected bats. Healthy bats simply do not invade occupied homes, land in lawns, or fly during the day, unless they have been disturbed. Also, people bitten by a bat may not even know they’ve been bitten, as a bat’s teeth are typically small and quite sharp and needlelike, in fact. Bite victims, especially children, may not even know there is a risk of rabies and do not seek medical attention until it is too late. Treat any bat contact as a potential rabid contact.
The danger involved with rabies is real, serious, and thankfully, rare. Protect your animals and yourself by taking the following steps: Vaccinate your livestock and pets on a regular basis, even if your animals never leave the house. Avoid contact with wild animals, especially those acting abnormally. Contact the authorities if you observe an animal acting strangely, or if you or an animal of yours encounters one. If you are bitten, clean the wound thoroughly and seek medical attention immediately. If your animal is bitten, seek veterinary attention. In both cases, notify the authorities. Remember, rabies is almost 100 percent fatal, and 100 percent preventable. Keep an eye out for strange behavior, vaccinate your pets, and you can make yourself immune to the fear of rabid madness.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His two dogs, Sophie and Scamp, keep constant watch for squirrels, wild turkeys, strange dogs, mailmen, and other threats to the household, and, yes, their vaccinations are up-to-date.