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Stoney Brook Veterinary Hospital

Rabies Still Poses a Threat

Gray rabbit being held by the sides by a vet with gloves

“Rabies is primarily a disease of children, who are particularly at risk from this terrible disease due to their close contact with dogs, the major global source,” said Dr. Debbie Briggs, Executive Director of the Alliance for Rabies Control. “Children are more likely to suffer multiple bites and scratches to the face and head, both of which carry a higher risk of contracting rabies. Children are often unaware of the danger that dogs transmit rabies and may not tell their parents when a bite, lick or scratch has occurred from an infected animal.”

Rabies is a viral disease that can be transmitted to animals and humans. The disease is transmitted mainly by bite, but exposure may also occur through contamination of broken skin or mucous membranes with saliva from an infected animal. Once neurological symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is fatal to both animals and humans.

According to the CDC, rabies in the U.S. is primarily carried by raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes with most instances of human exposure associated with contact with a bat. In fact, the CDC warns that if you wake up to find a bat in the room or find an infant or disabled person in the same room as a bat, there is a concern exposure to rabies may have occurred. If possible, the bat can be caught and tested. In any event, it is important to speak to a medical professional such as a doctor or emergency room physician as soon as possible.

Areas with the highest incidence of infected animals in 2009 were Texas, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Of these infections, wild animals composed 93 percent of all cases with domestic animals representing seven percent.

Of the 467 domestic animals to be infected, cats by far made up the majority of cases (52.9 percent), followed by dogs at 19 percent, cattle, horses and sheep, and goats.

In 2009, there were only three human infections.

Symptoms can remain latent for days or even as much as two months. In humans, they include irritability, generalized pain, itching or twitching at the infection site, and fever. During the latter stage of the disease, symptoms include muscle spasms in the throat and respiratory tract affecting breathing and swallowing, hallucinations, convulsions, seizures, and paralysis.

In dogs and cats, symptoms are as follows:

  • Early symptoms: Change in tone of dog’s bark, chewing at the bite site, fever, loss of appetite, subtle behavior changes.

  • Second stage: the craving to eat anything including inedible objects, Constant, growing and barking, Dilated pupils, Disorientation, Erratic behavior, aggression, no fear of natural enemies, seizures, trembling, and muscle incoordination.

  • End stage: appears to be choking, drops lower jaw (dogs), inability to swallow leading to drooling, paralysis of jaw, throat, and chewing muscles, which spreads to other parts of the body causing coma and death.