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 very 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 may 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. Their advice is to get prompt treatment if you’re bitten by any animal that could have rabies.

Recently, bats have been the source of most rabies cases. Still, across the U.S., only half a percent (0.5) of those examined are found to have rabies. The other wildlife most likely to have rabies are skunks, raccoons, and foxes. 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.

It’s often thought a nocturnal animal seen in 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. Watch skunk mother and her kits out in daytime. And, any time of year, especially hungry animals may come out in the daytime to forage. These animals will behave normally, while 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 (even healthy animals will be aggressive if they’re cornered.) To see how rabies affected different groups of animals in your state, as reported by the CDC, click here.

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 “destruction.” Don’t call them unless you’re prepared to have the animal euthanized. Some jurisdictions have standing orders to euthanize certain species whether they appear sick or not.

If you (or your 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