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What is rabies?

Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system. The virus is present primarily in the saliva, brain tissue and spinal fluid of a rabid animal.

What animals can get rabies?

Rabies can affect all mammals. Since 1995 in the United States, more than 7,000 animals per year--most of them wild--have been diagnosed as having the disease. The disease is found in all states except Hawaii, as well as in Canada, Mexico and most other countries around the world.

In wild animal species, rabies is more common in bats, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and foxes, but the disease also has been found in deer and in large rodents, such as woodchucks. Cats, dogs and livestock can get rabies, too, if they are not vaccinated. Some animals, including chipmunks, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, rabbits, rats and squirrels, rarely get rabies. Birds, fish, insects, lizards, snakes and turtles never get rabies.

Most of the recent cases of human rabies that have occurred in the United States have been caused by rabies virus from bats. In Illinois, rabid bats can be found anywhere. Awareness that bats can be a source of the rabies virus can help people protect themselves.

Although bats can carry the rabies virus, most bats are not infected with it. The only way rabies can be diagnosed in a bat, however, is by laboratory testing. There are several signs, though, that could indicate a bat is more likely to be infected with the rabies virus. Bats seen during the day, those found in a place where bats are usually not found (e.g., in a room in your home, on your lawn, etc.) or bats that are unable to fly are more likely to be infected than others. Bats, like all wild animals, should never be handled.

People usually know when they have been bitten by a bat, but there are instances when a bite may not be apparent. Bats have very small teeth and marks made by these teeth may not be easy to see. If you find yourself in close proximity to a bat and cannot assure you were not exposed to it, you should call your doctor or your local health department; they can help to determine if you could have been exposed to rabies. For example, if you awaken and find a bat in your bedroom, if you see a bat in the room of an unattended young child, or if you see a bat near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, a doctor or local health department should be consulted. Do not discard the bat and do not damage the bat's head.

What are the signs of rabies in an animal?

The first sign of rabies is usually a change in the animal's behavior. An animal need not be "foaming at the mouth" to have rabies. Other signs include difficulty walking, a general appearance of sickness or a change in the animal's normal behavior. For example, if an animal that is normally wild and avoids contact with humans approaches a picnic area, campsite or home and appears tame or friendly, consider it rabid. Conversely, if a normally tame and friendly animal becomes hostile or aggressive without provocation, it too should be considered rabid. A rabid animal usually dies within one week after showing signs of the disease.

How are people exposed to rabies?

People usually are exposed to the rabies virus when an infected animal bites them. Exposure may occur if the animal's saliva enters an open cut or mucous membrane (nose, mouth, eyes). The presence of a bat in a home, or any contact with a bat, represents a possible hazard for rabies and should be reported to the local health department so that the circumstances can be evaluated. The last human case in Illinois was reported in 2021.

What should a person do if an animal bite occurs?

Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. The local health department or the county animal control office also should be notified immediately. The animal should be captured without damaging its head and only if direct contact with the animal can be avoided.

If an apparently healthy domestic dog, cat or ferret bites a human, it must be captured, confined and professionally observed for 10 days following the bite. If the animal remains healthy during this period, it would not have transmitted rabies at the time of the bite. There is no reliable observation period established for non-domestic animals. If a person is bitten by a non-domestic animal and it is available for testing, testing should be done immediately. All animal bites should be reported to the local animal control office.
If an animal suspected of having rabies cannot be observed or tested, or if it tests positive for rabies, treatment of the individual with rabies immune globulin and the vaccine series must begin immediately. Vaccine injections are given in the arm.

People in high-risk occupations--for example, veterinarians, wildlife biologists, wildlife rehabilitators, animal control officers and taxidermists--should consider getting the rabies vaccine to protect themselves from exposures that could occur in their work. This type of vaccination (pre-exposure vaccination) consists of three rabies vaccine injections. These vaccinated persons should have their rabies titers tested every two years. If their titer falls below 1:5 they should receive a booster vaccination. A person already vaccinated and later exposed to rabies must receive two booster injections three days apart immediately after exposure.

What if a pet is exposed to a rabid animal?

If your pet has been in a fight with another animal call your veterinarian. A vaccinated pet may need a booster dose of rabies vaccine as soon as possible. Unvaccinated animals exposed to a known rabid animal must be confined and professionally observed for six months or euthanized.

What can people do to protect themselves and their pets from rabies?

  • Do not feed, touch or adopt wild animals or stray dogs or cats
  • Vaccinated pets serve as a buffer between rabid wildlife and humans, so be sure dogs and cats are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations. Consult with your veterinarian about when your pet needs to be vaccinated
  • Do not allow pets to roam free
  • Do not attract wild animals to your home or yard. Store bird seed or other animal feed in containers with tight-fitting lids. Feed pets indoors. Make sure garbage cans are tightly capped. Board up any openings to your attic, basement, porch or garage. Cap chimneys with screens
  • Encourage children to immediately tell an adult if they are bitten or scratched by an animal. Teach children not to approach or to touch any animal they do not know
  • Report all animal bites to the local animal control

If a wild animal comes on your property, let it wander away. Bring children and pets indoors and alert neighbors. If the animal is acting abnormally (nocturnal animal around during daylight hours, animal having trouble walking etc) you should contact your local animal control.