What is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus of
the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) that can affect any
mammal and is widespread throughout Pennsylvania.
What are the signs?
Rabies signs are grouped into two forms – furious and paralytic
(or dumb). An animal may show signs of only one type, progress from one form to
the other, or show no signs other than death.
form of rabies is familiar to most people. Signs may include:
- Loss of fear
- Daytime activity by a
- Attraction to noise
and human activity
- Excessive vocalization
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Biting at objects or
- May or may not drool
form of rabies may include symptoms such as:
- Decreased activity
- Poor coordination
- Hind limb weakness
- Acting “dull”
- Cats may meow
As the disease
progresses, an animal affected by paralytic
- Drop its lower jaw
- Be unable to swallow
- Become paralyzed
It is important to realize that not all
animals show every sign. Most neurological or behavioral abnormalities
could potentially be rabies.
Incubation is the
period from exposure to rabies virus until the animal finally becomes sick
and/or acts differently and is capable of infecting other animals or people. The
incubation period can be as short as two weeks or in very rare cases as long as
During the incubation
- the animal cannot
transmit rabies and its behavior remains normal
- there may be time for
the vaccine to prevent the animal from developing disease and prevent it from
shedding or transmitting the virus
Caution: Mammals may have the
virus in their saliva and be able to transmit it for a short period of time
before clinical signs appear.
Rabies in humans is a
preventable disease if exposure is recognized and treatment is given in a
Exposure to rabies may
occur by any of the following (other possible routes of exposure exist but are
- A direct bite from a
contagious rabid mammal.
- A scratch from a rabid
mammal that breaks the skin.
- Saliva or neural
tissue from a contagious rabid animal contacting an open wound or break in the
- Saliva or neural
tissue from a contagious rabid animal contacting mucus membranes such as the
eyes, nose or mouth.
Immediately washing a
bite or scratch with soap and water can greatly reduce the risk of rabies.
The rabies virus can
survive on inanimate objects for as long as it takes the saliva to completely
dry. Sunlight will kill the virus, while freezing and moisture can help
preserve it. The virus is killed by most disinfectants. There has never
been a documented case of rabies transmitted to humans from an inanimate
Bats are a cause of human rabies cases in the
United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now
recommends that every bat found inside a building or home be tested for rabies
if there was possible human contact (e.g. if people were sleeping in the
room). This is because it is possible to be bitten by a bat and not
even know it.
What happens if a person thinks they
have encountered a rabid animal or have been bitten by a mammal?
First, a person should
understand how rabies can be transmitted from an animal. See Exposure.
By law, all animal bites in PA must be reported by the medical
professional to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. If a person has been bitten, scratched or
otherwise exposed to saliva by a mammal that is suspected of having rabies,
the animal must be tested for rabies. The only way to test for rabies is
to euthanize the animal and have it submitted to an approved laboratory for
rabies testing. See: Submitting Animals for Rabies Testing. The Department of
Health should be notified by the medical professional and consulted for advice
on whether the exposed person should start receiving rabies treatment.
If a person has been
bitten by a mammal that is not
suspected of having rabies, then the animal must be observed for a period during which the animal is prevented
from exposing other people or animals. The Department of Health must be
notified by the medical professional and will provide advice on how to proceed.
If the animal is
clinically normal (not showing any signs of rabies) by the end of the
observation period, then it was very unlikely to have had rabies in its saliva
on the day it bit the person and will be released from observation. If the
animal shows signs of rabies or dies before the observation period is over, it
should be submitted for rabies testing. In some situations, such as when
the mammal is a wild animal, euthanasia may be preferential to a period of
What if the animal runs away? If a person has been bitten or
scratched by a mammal, either domestic or wild, but the animal is not available
for observation or testing, they should seek medical assistance immediately. The
medical professional must notify the county or local Department of Health
What happens to my pet or other
domestic mammal if it is bitten or scratched by a rabid animal?
By Department of
Agriculture regulations, a domestic animal that is exposed to a rabid animal
must be quarantined. Length of quarantine depends on rabies vaccination status
of the exposed domestic animal. If the domestic animal is unvaccinated (or
its vaccination status has expired) at the time of exposure to a rabid animal,
a 180-day quarantine will be imposed. If the domestic animal that
was exposed to a rabid animal was legally vaccinated for rabies and the
vaccination status was current at the time of exposure, a 90-day quarantine
will be imposed.
An exposed domestic animal
may receive a post-exposure vaccination. The Department of Agriculture will not
seize or euthanize your pet or domestic animals for being exposed to rabies!
However, in some circumstances, euthanasia of the exposed domestic animal may
be recommended at the owner’s discretion.
What does it mean for my pet to be
- The pet must be under
the owner's control and on his/her property during the period of quarantine.
- The owner must take
precaution to prevent exposure to other people and animals during this time.
- A quarantine sign will
be posted by the Department of Agriculture. It is unlawful to remove a
Submitting Animals for Rabies Testing
If the suspect is a wild
mammal, contact the PA Game Commission (PGC) for help in capturing and
submitting the animal. See the blue pages of your phone book for the
number of your local PGC office or look online:
If the suspect is a
domestic mammal, consult your veterinarian for help in euthanizing and
submitting the animal.
You may also call your
local Department of Agriculture regional office for information on submitting
mammals for rabies testing. See Regional Office to find the appropriate contact information for the regional office covering
Detailed information on submission is available on the Pennsylvania
Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System website: http://www.padls.org
How can you prevent Rabies?
- Vaccination of
domestic mammals for rabies is very effective. Vaccination is recommended
for all species for which there is an approved rabies vaccine. (Discuss
vaccination of species for which there is not an approved rabies vaccine with
- By PA law, dogs and
cats shall be vaccinated against rabies within 4 weeks after the date the dog
or cat attains 12 weeks of age, and maintain a current rabies immunity as
prescribed by rabies vaccine manufacturers.
- Do not handle
Contact your Department of Agriculture Regional Office with questions about domestic animals.Contact your regional Pennsylvania Game Commission Office for questions about wildlife. Contact the Pennsylvania Department of Health for questions concerning people at 1-877-PAHEALTH.