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Frequently Asked Questions About Rabies

What is rabies?

 

Rabies is a viral disease that can infect mammals.  It causes inflammation of the brain.  Once symptoms begin, there is no treatment for rabies, and it is always fatal.

 

How do you get rabies?

 

The virus is usually transmitted by the bite of an infected animal.  The virus can also be transmitted if saliva from an infected animal gets into an open wound or onto a mucous membrane such as the eyes, nose, or mouth.  Inhalation of rabies virus has been known to occur, but only in very special circumstances, such as a research laboratory.

 

How do you know if an animal has rabies?

 

There are 2 forms of rabies illness seen in animals.  One is known as the furious form, and animals with this type of rabies can exhibit symptoms such as agitation and increased aggressiveness early on, followed by depression, paralysis, and eventually death.  The other type of rabies is called the dumb form, and these animals are lethargic, depressed, and eventually die.  Because many illnesses can cause these types of symptoms, rabies can be difficult to diagnose.  You cannot always know if an animal has rabies, but if you observe "a pet animal behaving wild or a wild animal behaving tame", you should consider rabies as a possible cause, and take appropriate precautions.

 

There is no test of a live animal that can detect the presence of the rabies virus.  In order to determine if an animal has rabies, brain tissue must be examined for the presence of characteristic lesions.

 

Is there any treatment for rabies?

 

There is no treatment for rabies once a person or animal shows signs of the disease, and death is inevitable. 

 

How is rabies prevented?

 

There are vaccines available for most domestic animals that are effective in preventing rabies should they be exposed to an animal with rabies.  These vaccines should be administered by a licensed veterinarian, and boosters given as recommended by the vaccine manufacturer.  Any type of animal for which a licensed vaccine exists should be vaccinated, and these include dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, cows, sheep, and goats.  If you think your pet or livestock may have been exposed to a rabid animal, report it to your veterinarian.

 

In humans, rabies can be prevented by reducing your exposure to unvaccinated animals, unfamiliar animals, and wild or exotic animals for which vaccines do not exist.  In the case of exposure to a potentially rabid animal, there is a Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) treatment which, when administered appropriately, can prevent the disease in exposed persons.  There is no PEP treatment available for animals. 

 

Is there a rabies vaccine for people?

There are rabies vaccinesavailable for use in people.  In most cases, they are used as part of the PEP treatment for people exposed to potentially rabid animals.  Persons in high-risk occupations such as veterinarians and animal control officers, or some people traveling overseas, may have a pre-exposure series of vaccines in order to induce immunity to the rabies virus.  In the case of future exposure to a rabid animal, fewer doses of vaccine are required for PEP.

 

What is Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)?

 

PEP is the treatment given to people exposed to potentially or known rabid animals.  Guidelines for PEPhave been developed by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), and include one dose of rabies immune globulin, and a series of 4 doses of rabies vaccine given over a 14 day period.  Rabies immune globulin is made up of antibodies to the rabies virus, and is injected into the site of the bite from the animal.  The vaccine is administered in the muscle of the arm.  There has never been a case of rabies in a person who has received PEP administered in accordance with the ACIP recommended guidelines.

 

Will rabies vaccine make me sick?

 

Rabies vaccine is made from killed rabies virus, and cannot cause rabies.  The vaccine is no more painful than any other type of vaccination, and side effects are similar to those seen with other vaccines, and can include pain, redness, itching, and swelling at the site of the vaccination.  Localized pain and a fever can sometimes follow a rabies immune globulin injection.  Most side effects can be managed with an anti-inflammatory medication such as acetaminophen.  As with any vaccine, some individuals can experience more serious side effects, and a physician should be consulted if this occurs.   If you experience an unusual reaction to any vaccine, ask your health care provider to report it to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).  You can also report it yourself by calling 1-800-822-7967, or visiting their website at www.vaers.org.

 

What should I do if I think I may have been exposed to rabies?

 

It is important to first thoroughly cleanse any wound caused by an animal with soap and water.  Next, you should immediately seek medical attention.  Appropriate wound care, including antibiotics, and the need for a tetanus booster will be determined by your health care provider.  Animal bites must be reported to local health authorities for appropriate follow-up and determination of the need for PEP.  If possible, the animal should be safely confined or collected until the need for rabies testing has been determined.  Determining that an animal is negative for rabies infection can make PEP treatment unnecessary. 

 

 

 

Are bats more likely to have rabies than other mammals?

 

Bats are the species of animal most often found to be positive for rabies in Michigan.  In general, the rate of rabies in the general population of bats is thought to be less than 1%.  Of the bats tested at the Michigan Department of Community Health's Bureau of Laboratories, about 6% are positive.   The reason for the difference is the bats that get submitted for testing are more likely to be sick bats that are behaving abnormally. 

 

Since 1978, 75% of human rabies cases in the United States have been caused by bat-strains.  In most of these cases, an exposure to bats could not be confirmed.  For that reason, bats may represent a special concern.  Bats have very small teeth, and a bite from a bat may not be felt.  Bats are frequently found inside people's homes.  If a bat is found inside your home, DO NOT DISCARD IT.  Instead you should safely collect the bat until the need for rabies testing as been determined.  Wearing leather gloves, place a coffee can or box over the bat, then use a piece of cardboard with holes punched in it to slide under the can or box, taping this cover firmly to the container.  Contact your local health departmentor animal control agencyto arrange for testing. If a bat is found in the room with a sleeping person, a child, or someone who is mentally disabled or intoxicated, that bat should be collected for rabies testing.If the bat is unavailable for testing, PEP may need to be administered. Your local health department should be contacted for help in determining the need for PEP.

Related Content
 •  Maps of Rabies Positive Animals in Michigan
 •  Winter Starvation and Diseased Wildlife Reporting
 •  Guidelines for the Reporting of Rabies Cases Using the Michigan Disease Surveillance System (MDSS) PDF icon
 •  Bats and Rabies
 •  History of Rabies in Michigan
 •  Link to MDNR's Wildlife Disease Manual- Rabies page
 •  Distribution
 •  Transmission
 •  Clinical Signs
 •  Pathology and Diagnosis
 •  Introduction to Rabies Surveillance in Michigan.
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