Know your Neighborhood Wildlife - The
Real Facts about Rabies
by TOM PIPERSON & BIRGIT SOMMER
Have you ever wondered about the dangers of rabies? Birgit Sommer, licensed wildlife
rehabilitator and director of the Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in Stephenville, deals with these issues
on a regular basis and would like to set the record straight about some urban legends surrounding
the rabies virus.
Even though we enjoy the benefits of 21st Century medicine, rabies is still dangerous and even
deadly to its victims, both animal and human. Understanding the facts about rabies, as provided
in this article, can help prevent the spread of the disease, or even save a life.
During a month-long survey of Erath County residents, Ms. Sommer gathered the 10 most
frequently asked questions about rabies and has done the necessary research to provide the
The information provided is based on official Government sources such as the Infectious Disease
Control Unit of the Texas Department of State Health Services as well as the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
1. What exactly is rabies?
Rabies is a contagious virus that can cause death in people and certain animals and is nearly
always fatal if not treated in a timely manner.
2. How is rabies transmitted?
The rabies virus is usually transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal, most commonly
through a bite. The virus can be transmitted from animal to animal, from animal to human, and
on rare occasions, from human to human.
Another way of transmitting the virus, even though highly uncommon, is for saliva or brain
tissue from a rabid animal to get directly into the eyes, nose, mouth or open wound of a person or
However, contrary to common belief, you can’t get rabies from the blood, urine, or feces of an
During her survey, Ms. Sommer noted another misconception about rabies transmission. She
stated it is not true that an animal can be just a carrier of the rabies virus and transmit it to
another animal or humans for weeks, months or even years.
According to the CDC, "No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog,
cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days."
Before the rabies virus reaches the brain, the animal does not show any symptoms, according to
the CDC. The animal does not appear ill during this time, called the incubation period, which
may last for weeks or months. During this time period the animal CAN NOT transmit the virus
to another animal or person. This is the reason why animals that have bitten a human are held in
quarantine for 10 days.
As the CDC states, " Only late in the disease, after the virus has reached the brain and
multiplied there to cause an encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) does the virus move from
the brain to the salivary glands and saliva."
3. What animals are most likely to have rabies?
All mammals can get rabies. It is most common in un-vaccinated household pets such as dogs,
cats and ferrets as well as in livestock such as cattle, and wild animals like skunks, bats,
raccoons, coyotes and foxes.
Small animals like mice, rats, squirrels, and even opossums, are almost never found to be
infected with rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bites by these
animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving
abnormally and rabies is a major problem in your vicinity.
4. How common is rabies in Erath County?
Officially confirmed rabies cases from 2000 until today include according to the Texas
Department of State Health Services Infectious Disease Control Unit:
Year Rabies Cases Confirmed In Variant
2000 24 23 skunks, 1 cat Skunk
2001 27 27 skunks Skunk
2002 8 6 skunks, 1 goat, 1 horse Skunk
2003 10 8 skunks, 2 dogs Skunk
2004 4 2 skunks, 1 bat, 1 cattle Skunk, Bat
2005 5 3 skunks, 1 cat, 1 cattle Skunk
2006 2 1 skunk, 1 dog Skunk
2007 4 3 skunks, 1 cat Skunk
2008 6 3 skunks, 2 dogs, 1 raccoon Skunk
2009 2 1 skunk, 1 cat Skunk
All animals except 1 (the bat in 2004) contracted the virus from an infected skunk.
5. How can I tell if an animal has rabies?
The symptoms are not easily recognized because other diseases display similar symptoms. Pets
infected with the rabies virus act in unusual ways. Be alert for changes in behavior. A dog that is
friendly may avoid people. Mean dogs may act friendly to strangers. Animals may become
aggressive, make strange noises or erratic movements, and attack other animals or humans. They
may have trouble walking, drinking, swallowing, or chewing. It may not be able to close its
mouth, and may appear to be choking. If you see an animal acting like this, call the local animal
control agency right away.
6. What should I do if I had contact with a possibly rabid animal?
Prompt treatment is required to prevent a rabies infection. First, flush the bite or wound area with
water for at least one full minute. Follow up by washing with soap (or detergent if soap is not
immediately available) to remove saliva containing the virus. Then apply a disinfectant such as
rubbing alcohol, bleach, or iodine tincture directly on the wound and under skin flaps to stop the
rabies from being absorbed into the body tissue. Then get to your doctor or an emergency room
as soon as possible.
7. How is rabies diagnosed in animals and humans?
A direct fluorescent antibody test (dFA) is used to test the brain tissue of animals suspected to be
rabid. However, the dFA test can only be performed after the animal has died. For humans,
several tests are required to diagnose rabies. Samples of body tissues and fluids - saliva, spinal
fluid, serum, and hair follicles - are tested for signs of the rabies virus. Positive results from one
test is not proof of rabies, all tests are required for diagnosis.
8. Can baby animals have rabies?
Babies born to a healthy rabies-free mother will be rabies free at birth. Babies born to a rabid
mother will most likely have rabies, because it is exposed to the mother’s saliva. These babies
will probably not survive long enough to go out into the world. Teach your children to never
touch wildlife. Call the authorities or your local wildlife rehabilitator if you find a wild baby
animal that seems to be orphaned and in need of human intervention.
9. How do I protect myself and my pets from rabies?
Have a veterinarian vaccinate your dogs and cats against rabies. By law, you need to do
this every year, or every three years, depending on the type of vaccine used.
Keeping your pets vaccinated protects you and them.
Keep pets away from wildlife and don’t let them wander loose through the neighborhood.
Avoid contact with wild animals and with dogs and cats you do not know. Do not try to
hand-feed wild animals and do not keep them as pets.
Do not touch sick or injured animals. Call and report them to the authorities.
10. How do I prevent the spread of rabies?
Be a responsible pet owner and have all your pets vaccinated once a year.
Keep your pets confined and supervised.
Spay or neuter your pets to prevent the spread of unwanted and unvaccinated animals
straying through your neighborhood.
Enjoy wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes from afar. Do not handle, feed,
or attract wild animals with open garbage cans or litter. Do not leave pet food outside!
Do not rescue wild animals or bring them into your home. Do not try to raise orphaned
wildlife. Call animal control or your local wildlife rehabilitator for assistance.