There are various diseases that are carried by wild animals that can cause harm to humans or their four-legged companions. We will be highlighting some of the most serious, common, or notorious diseases that fall into this category in a series of blog posts. Today we will be taking a closer look at rabies.

Rabies is likely the most notorious animal disease. Stories are often told of disoriented, aggressive raccoons, foaming at the mouth. However, the truth of this disease can be quite different, and not nearly so obvious. Rabies is a viral disease that affects mammals, warm-blooded animals with fur such as cats, dogs, ferrets, raccoons, and humans. Even livestock such as cows, pigs, or horses can contract it, but it is rare in rodents and small mammals such as squirrels, mice, rats, and rabbits. Before 1960, most cases of this disease were found in domestic animals, with dogs being a large part of those numbers. Now, however, this disease is most commonly found in wild animals, like bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and foxes. It is spread through the saliva of an infected animal and is most commonly transmitted through bites. It can take weeks, or even months for the first symptoms to present after exposure.

This viral disease attacks the central nervous system. First symptoms typically appear flu-like, such as fever, headache, and weakness. However, once the disease progresses it is accompanied by very specific symptoms including hydrophobia, or fear of water, hypersalivation, hallucinations, insomnia, and paralysis. By the time these symptoms present, death is typically not far off.

In the United States, it is uncommon for humans to contract this disease, and deaths are rare. In fact, less there have been fewer than 100 document cases of rabies in the United States since 1990, with only three or four deaths in the last few years combined. This is in large part due to the introduction of rabies vaccines, as well as increased awareness of the disease. There are vaccines for dogs and cats, which have a killed variation of the virus, that provide preventative exposure for these animals. There are also vaccine options for humans, both preventative and after-exposure. These vaccines are not a simple one-and-done affair, though. Multiple applications are required, stretched out over the course of almost a month. This can also be a costly affair, as each dose and be up to $3,000, with at least three to four required doses.

Of animals tested, bats had the highest rate of rabies infection, accounting for over 30% of all infected animals. However, this number can be misleading in terms of the true percentage of bats with rabies. Less than 6% of bats tested by the CDC tested positive for rabies, and it is believed that less than 1% of bats actually have rabies. That does not mean that if you are exposed to a bat you have zero risks. In fact, bats are the most likely animal to transmit rabies to humans. Part of this risk is caused by the fact that it is not always known when contact has happened with a bat. Small children, the elderly, and others who are unable to properly communicate are most at risk in these cases.

While many of the animals that can carry rabies are cute, like foxes, raccoons, and bats, these animals are best left alone, untouched by humans. Additionally, if you notice an animal that appears to be ill or disoriented, do not approach or confront it. These animals should only be handled by trained wildlife control professionals. If a bite does occur, regardless of whether the animal appears ill or not, the most important thing to do is to immediately rinse the bite with water. In many cases, this one step can help to prevent disease. However, medical attention should always be sought after any potential rabies exposure. It is also important to keep your household pets up to date on their vaccines. Any animal that is unvaccinated or is behind on their vaccinations and has potentially been exposed to rabies may have to be euthanized to prevent spreading the disease.