Although the rabies virus is commonly known for causing a life-threatening disease, many people are unaware of what exactly it entails and how to prevent its transmission. Rabies is an infection affecting the central nervous system, or brain and spinal cord, of humans and animals. This infection is caused by a virus that is transmitted primarily from bites wounds, scratches, or tissue from an infected animal. It is nearly always deadly if not treated before the beginning of symptoms.
“Symptoms include fever, lethargy, seizures, and ultimately paralysis,” said Dr. Stacy Eckman, lecturer at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “This paralysis can include paralysis of the muscles that control swallowing, leading to a ‘fear of water’ or ‘hydrophobia’ that is often described with rabies.” Behavior changes leading to abnormally aggressive behavior may also occur.
Since humans and animals alike usually become infected through a bite by a rabid animal, many believe that it will be easy to tell when or if the disease has been spread to them. However, it is entirely possible for rabies to be transmitted to you or your pet unknowingly. Bat bites or scratches, for example, may be so miniscule that they go unnoticed.
“Bats are the most common carriers of rabies in the United States,” said Dr. Eckman. “It is important to always avoid any contact with them. If you have come into contact with a bat, inform animal control officers in your area so they can submit the bat for testing, if possible, and contact your doctor.”
Although bats are the biggest threat to humans, household dogs can easily contract the disease if bitten by another infected dog or animal.
“Worldwide, dogs are a common transmitter of the disease via bite wounds,” said Dr. Eckman. “But it can also affect humans, cats, farm animals, raccoons, and many other warm-blooded animals.”
The time from exposure to the virus until symptoms appear is usually only a few months, and unfortunately, once symptoms begin, there is little hope in humans for survival.
“There are treatments that can be given after a bite and before symptoms begin (post-exposure) that are useful,” said Dr. Eckman. “They include human rabies immunoglobulin, followed by a series of rabies vaccines given over a two-week period.” These shots help the body’s immune system destroy the disease in its early stages, and getting them before symptoms appear is usually helpful in preventing infection.
However, prevention is always said to be the best treatment, and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to the rabies virus. The easiest method of prevention is to always steer clear of unknown or aggressive animals. This includes avoiding contact with stray dogs, bats, or any wild animals, as well as avoiding the handling of a dead animal.
Depending on the situation, preventative rabies vaccinations may also be a recommended method.
“Vaccination can greatly reduce the risk of infection for people who have a high risk of exposure, such as those who work with animals, including veterinarians,” said Dr. Eckman. “Companion animals and farm animals should be appropriately vaccinated by a veterinarian.”
If you think that you or someone in your family has been exposed to the rabies virus, wash the affected area with soap and water for five minutes after potential exposure and seek immediate medical attention. Rabies is more common than you might think, and preventing its transmission to you or your loved ones is the most effective form of treatment.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.