Wildlife and rabies: the facts


Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system of mammals (including humans). It’s terrible and deadly. But, it’s rare and you’ll likely never see a rabid animal.

The virus is commonly transmitted in the saliva of an infected animal when it bites another animal, but it can also be found in its eyes or nose. Untreated rabies is always fatal and it kills one or two people every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this is almost always because the victims didn’t understand their exposure after being bitten. The CDCs advice is to get prompt treatment if you get bitten by any animal that could have rabies.

Recently, bats seem to be the source of most rabies reports. But, in testing bats across the U.S. in 2015, the CDC report shows only 6.6 percent of obviously weak and sick ones had rabies. Of other captured and tested wildlife 13.1 percent of raccoons, 18.8 percent of foxes and 28.1 percent of skunks had rabies. That doesn’t mean, (using raccoons as an example) that 13.1 percent of the raccoons in your neighborhood have rabies. The wildlife came from across the U.S., many from communities with higher populations of some species. In rare instances, rabies has been found in deer and large rodents, such as woodchucks. Rabies doesn’t affect birds, fish, lizards, snakes, turtles or insects. In 25 years of watching on a nearly daily basis, this writer has seen only one rabid animal, a skunk. To see the rabies report for your state, click here.

Nocturnal animals out in daytime
It’s a common misconception that a nocturnal animal seen out in the daytime must be rabid, but this is rarely the case. In spring and early summer, mothers and juveniles will venture forth even in daylight to search for food, as you see in the photo above. Watch skunk mother and her kits out in daylight. And, any time of year, animals that are especially hungry may come out to forage; they will behave normally. 

Identifying a rabid animal
A rabid animal will display symptoms such as lethargy, stupor, walking in circles, paralysis of one or both back legs, loss of balance, eye or nose discharge, or unexplained aggressiveness toward humans. (Note that even healthy animals may act aggressively when cornered.) 

If you believe an animal is rabid, keep your family and pets away from it and call Animal Control. A word of caution about calling them: Animal “control” basically means animal euthanasia. Don’t call them unless you’re pretty certain the animal is ill. Some jurisdictions have standing orders to kill certain species whether they appear sick or not.

If your pet is bitten
If you (or your vaccinated or unvaccinated pet) are bitten by an animal, try to contain it, but don’t risk another bite. Containment may be as easy as placing a box over the animal, with a heavy rock on top to hold it down. Wash your wound with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. Teach your children to immediately tell you if they’re bitten or scratched by a wild animal. By the way, rabies vaccinations for humans are no longer administered into the abdomen, a reportedly very painful procedure of the past. Now, they go in the arm, one a week for several weeks, and they’re no more painful than a flu shot (not that anyone would want to experience it!)

*Top photo: Christopher Michaud / EOL; cc by-sa 3.0