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.
The furious form of rabies is familiar to most people. Signs may include:
- Loss of fear
- Daytime activity by a nocturnal species
- Attraction to noise and human activity
- Excessive vocalization
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Biting at objects or other animals
- May or may not drool
The paralytic form of rabies may include symptoms such as:
- Decreased activity
- Poor coordination
- Hind limb weakness
- Acting “dull”
- Cats may meow excessively
As the disease progresses, an animal affected by paralytic rabies may:
- 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 one year.
During the incubation period:
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.
- 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
Rabies in humans is a preventable disease if exposure is recognized and treatment is given in a timely manner.
Exposure to rabies may occur by any of the following (other possible routes of exposure exist but are rare):
- 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 skin.
- 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 object.
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 observation.
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 office.
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 quarantined?
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 quarantine sign.
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 your area.
Detailed information on submission is available on the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System website.
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 your veterinarian.)
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 wildlife.
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.