Rabies...how to identify?
Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system. It is a zoonotic (can be transmitted from animalsto humans) viral disease. The virus can be found in domestic animals (including cows) and wild animals. Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is invariably fatal to animals and humans and there is no rabies cure. However, prompt post-exposure shots are effective in stopping the development of the disease.
Potential exposures -- human
If there is the slightest question of a human rabies exposure, wash the exposed area thoroughly with antibacterial soap or detergent and water, or even just flush with water.You should then contact your Public Health Officer for professional advice. Although you may also contact your doctor, many doctors are not particularly familiar with rabies.
Remember that even if rabies is not likely, tetanus is always a possibility from a bite; you should make sure that your tetanus shot is current. There is also the possibility of bacterial infection from an animal bite.
Potential exposures -- pets
If your pet has been bitten or attacked, has fought with or is exposed to a wild animal:
- Call the pet away from the animal.
- If possible, confine the wild animal without touching it or exposing yourself.
- Prevent exposure to saliva from an open wound - you should not handle, pet, touch, or examine your pet for at least two hours following the fight.
- If you must handle your pet, you should wear heavy gloves and/or be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. You should then contact local officials.
- Contact animal control immediately.
High, low, and no risk rabies species
Technically, any warmblooded animal (including humans) can get and transmit rabies. There have been no naturally occurring incidences (only laboratory-induced) of rabies in birds, and very few in cottontails and rodents (squirrels, mice, voles,moles, rats). The risk factor is very small in these animals. Reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded and cannot carry rabies.
There are mammals, called "rabies vector species" (RVS) or "high risk species" which have a somewhat higher risk for rabies. The RVSs are: raccoon, fox, skunk, bat, and groundhog (woodchucks). In 1998 Virginia also added opossums to this list, although the incidence has been very small, primarily because up until that time it was thought it was virtually impossible for opossums to get rabies because of their low body temperature. There have also been several cases of rabies in beavers. It is important to remember that animals can have rabies for weeks or even months without showing symptoms, so caution should also be used with high risk species. If you are bitten by a high risk mammal, the animal, if captured, must be turned over to local animal control and tested for rabies.
How can I tell normal behavior from possible rabies?
When nocturnal animals (raccoon, skunk, opossum, or fox) are seen in the daylight, many people believe that this is a sign of rabies. However, in spring and early summer it's not unusual to see nocturnal animals during the day because mothers and juveniles who are searching for food will hunt whenever they have to. They may even compete with household pets for food if it is left outside. If there is aggressive behavior toward a pet in the yard, clarify whether they are actually fighting or instead competing for food. If the food is brought inside but the animal continues to hang around and acts aggressive, there is cause for concern. (If contact or fighting took place, this is definitely a potential rabies exposure.)
Certain other habits, such as nesting in a chimney or attic, are also normal behavior, particularly in baby season or extremes of weather. Nesting behavior is not a sign of rabies.
"Sick" behavior may take any number of forms, including lethargy, stupor, falling over, walking around in circles, aimless wandering, unexplained aggression toward pets or humans, eye or nose discharge, and partial or complete rear paralysis (often mistaken for an injured leg or hindquarters). Some of these symptoms occur with distemper also; distemper is also always fatal to the animal. If the animal is obviously injured, rather than sick, do not to handle the animal.
In all cases of questionable behavior the best approach is "better safe than sorry". Immediately call professionals and let them deal with the situation by calling 911.