A Common Sense Approach To Rabies: Don’t Panic!

WHAT IS RABIES? Written references to rabies date back thousands of years!

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system of an infected animal. Contrary to popular myth, there are no carriers of rabies, all infected animals are sick animals. Although any mammal can contract all forms of rabies, there are five distinct strains (bat, skunk, raccoon, fox, and canine (coyote & domestic dog) of which the animal(s) indicated in the strain are most susceptible to it, and unless vaccinated a large portion of that species population will die during a rabies outbreak. In 1993, for example, we saw an epizootic of raccoon rabies in Connecticut.

Any mammal can contract any form of rabies, but raccoons, skunks, fox and woodchucks seem most susceptible to the raccoon strain. Bat rabies has always occurred at a low level in the bat population and researchers indicate that less that 1% of the bat population is infected with rabies.

The few human deaths attributed to rabies annually (average: two a year nationwide) have been largely due to the bat strain or other strains contracted overseas. Worldwide, dogs account for at least 90% of all human deaths from rabies. Statistically speaking, Connecticut residents stand a far greater risk of dying from a lightning strike or food poisoning than from rabies.

Being bitten by a rabid animal is not fatal, as long as you promptly undergo post-exposure treatment (a series of shots in the arm). If given promptly, post-exposure rabies shots are 100% effective against the virus.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF RABIES IN WILD ANIMALS? It’s a myth that raccoons seen during daylight hours must be rabid. It is not unusual for healthy mother raccoons with hungry babies to search for extra food during the day, and raccoons can often be seen sunbathing in trees. Raccoons will forage for food along coastlines whenever low tide occurs. Only if a raccoon or other wild animal is acting strange or sick – convulsing, circling, appearing disoriented or partly paralyzed, showing signs of unprovoked aggression or uncharacteristic tameness – people should call their animal control officer or police.

HOW IS RABIES TRANSMITTED? People have exaggerated fears about rabies. The reality is that the rabies virus is not airborne and cannot penetrate intact skin. You can only get rabies via a bite from a rabid animal or through scratches, abrasions, open wounds or mucous membranes contaminated with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal. The rabies virus is short-lived when exposed to open air; thus the virus cannot survive in saliva that has dried up. The arbitrary killing of raccoons has been proven to be an ineffective tactic in eradicating rabies from a particular area. In reality, raccoons that are trapped and killed are usually healthy animals.

Studies of raccoons in epizootic areas indicate that more than 20% of the raccoon population have a natural immunity to rabies, according too the Rabies Unit for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy, naturally immune individuals should be left in the population to act as a buffer for humans and pets.

IS THERE A VACCINE AVAILABLE FOR WILDLIFE? Yes! Fox rabies has been virtually eliminated in Europe due to the distribution of an oral rabies vaccine. This vaccine is being distributed in many parts of the United States and Canada. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Vermont are among the Northeastern states that have distributed the oral rabies vaccine. It is even being used in Mexico and India to help control the spread of dog rabies. Distribution is currently limited to state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Please contact your state and federal legislators to encourage adoption of an oral rabies vaccine program in Connecticut. Rabies can and will be eradicated from the U.S. with proper funding and cooperation between individual states.


IS THERE A VACCINE AVAILABLE FOR PEOPLE? IS IT PAINFUL? Most people working in animal rescue, both wild and domestic, choose to get vaccinated against rabies. Pre-exposure vaccination consists of a series of three painless injections in your arm. A booster shot is usually given every other year.

Pre-exposure vaccinations protect us against inadvertent exposure only. If you are bitten by a wild animal, particularly a rabies vector species (skunk, raccoon or fox) or an unvaccinated domestic animal, you will need to begin a two-shot post-exposure treatment promptly! Pre-exposure immunization does not eliminate the need for post-exposure treatment; it only reduces the cost and the number of shots required for post-exposure treatment.

The bottom line: Use common sense and don’t be careless about rabies.

Vaccinate your pets against rabies, leave wild animals alone, and don’t panic at the mere sight of a raccoon! If you are bitten by a wild animal or an unvaccinated domestic animal wash your wound well with warm water and soap and promptly call your doctor or local health department for advice about treatment.


Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

John Muir