In 1991, the first case of raccoon rabies was identified in Connecticut. Since then, animal rabies has been confirmed in all 169 Connecticut towns. Many wild animals, as well as increasing numbers of domestic animals, have been affected in Connecticut as the raccoon rabies spreads. Unlike raccoon rabies, bat rabies has always existed in Connecticut. Although rabies in humans is very rare in this country, about 18,000 people with animal bites receive preventive rabies treatment each year.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a fatal disease of the nervous system caused by a virus found in the saliva of infected animals. All mammals are susceptible. In the majority of cases, the virus is transmitted through the saliva of a rabid animal to another animal or human by biting. The virus also can be transmitted when infected saliva is deposited on damaged or broken skin, or in the eye or mouth.
After the virus enters the body, it travels from the entrypoint to the central nervous system along the spinal cord and finally to the brain. Death is inevitable once the virus enters the nerve tissue because the body cannot mount an immune response to destroy the virus. Prompt medical attention and post-exposure treatment are necessary to prevent rabies in humans and pets exposed to the virus.
The incubation period is the time from exposure until symptoms appear. The length of the incubation period depends on a series of factors. In humans, the incubation period is usually three to eight weeks, rarely as short as nine days or as long as seven years. Dogs and cats can take weeks and even months after an exposure before symptoms are apparent.
Prevention of disease after exposure is only effective during the incubation period. Rabies prophylaxis is recommended for administration as soon as possible after exposure. Once symptoms appear, prophylaxis is not effective.
Animals Most Susceptible to the Rabies Virus
Most mammals can be infected by the virus and can transmit the disease to man. Raccoons, cats, dogs, foxes, skunks, woodchucks, bats, livestock, and some farm animals are likely to get rabies. Squirrels, rodents, and rabbits seldom spread rabies because they are vulnerable in the food chain. Domesticated dogs, cats or livestock can be exposed in encounters with infected wild animals.
Symptoms of a Rabid Animal
Avoid any unfamiliar animal, wild or domestic, displaying abnormal behavior such as excessive friendliness or extreme passiveness, unprovoked aggression, uncoordinated movements or apparent illness. It is best to assume that all wild animals may have rabies, so keep your distance.
Care of a Dog or Cat After Exposure
Never try to break up a fight between your pet and a wild animal. If your pet is bitten or has had contact with a potentially rabid animal, wear protective rubber gloves when handling it or treating its wounds. Contact your veterinarian immediately for further advice. The veterinarian will examine and treat the pet for wounds and determine if rabies prophylaxis or revaccination is needed.
If you are unsure if your pet has had contact with a potentially rabid animal either through a bite or scratch, and regardless of vaccination status, take the pet to a local veterinarian immediately.
Care of a Human After Exposure
Wash the wound immediately and thoroughly with soap and plenty of warm water for ten minutes to lessen the chances of infection.
Immediately call your physician and local health department. A precise history will aid the physician in determining what treatment is necessary for the prevention of rabies and other infections.
Post-exposure treatment consists of one dose of immune globulin and five doses of antirabies vaccine given over a 28 day period. This treatment has proven effective, when administered before the onset of symptoms. Most people do not react adversely to the rabies vaccine.
If possible, identify and capture the animal for examination, testing or observation. Try not to physically handle the animal, but if you must touch it use protective rubber gloves. If a potentially rabid animal is dead, do not destroy the carcass. Take special care not to damage the head because it is the brain that will be tested. The State Laboratory is the only place in Connecticut that tests animals for rabies. Contact your local animal control officer or health department for assistance.
Things to remember
- Vaccinate your dogs and cats. Connecticut law requires all cats and dogs three months or older to be vaccinated against rabies and to keep these shots up to date. Carry documentation of the rabies vaccination when you travel.
- Do not allow your dog or cat to roam at will. Confinement to your own property or on a leash will protect your pet from stray animals and will lessen the probability of your pet biting others. Report stray dogs and cats to the local animal control officer.
- Do not feed or handle wild or stray animals. Never keep a wild animal or a stray as a pet. Remember, a rabid animal sometimes acts tame. Call the local police department or animal control officer for assistance with a wild animal.
- Do not allow children visiting petting zoos to put their fingers through the barriers as many farm animals can not be vaccinated against rabies. Also, teach your children to enjoy all wild animals from a distance.
- Avoid attracting wildlife near your home. Do not feed your pets outside. Keep the area around your house free of food scraps and other debris. Secure garbage can lids. Cap chimneys with screens and close off openings in attics, basements, or porches.
- When planning international travel, check with your physician or health department to determine if rabies vaccine is recommended.