2018-06-14 / Opinions

Rabies: what it is, what to do, who to call

By MICHAEL FOSTER
Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

If you have had the opportunity to read the two previous articles on skunks and raccoons you would know that both of these critters are primary vectors for the rabies virus. While these two animals are the primary carriers of rabies, this virus can be transmitted to any mammal – including humans – and can be a threat to livestock and pets.

Rabies is an acute disease caused by rhabdovirus. It attacks the nervous system and is always fatal unless medical treatment is received. It is carried through the animal’s saliva and is most often transmitted through a bite from a rabid animal. In rare cases it can be contracted through contact with saliva, open sores or cuts, or through mucus membranes such as eyes or mouth. While most cases of human infection occur through bites from infected pets and bites from skunks and raccoons, many incidents of human infection occur from being bitten by bats. Bat bites often occur in the middle of the night and since they are very small punctures they are often unnoticed or self-diagnosed as an insect bite. It is often not until the onset of symptoms that people seek medical attention and without an obvious bite wound it may be misdiagnosed as hysteria, schizophrenia, or Guillain-Barré syndrome.

In most animals, the incubation period – the time between infection and the onset of symptoms – is usually between two and 12 weeks. In humans, it could take over a year for signs of infection to appear. Rabies may present itself in two forms: furious rabies or dumb rabies. Both forms are progressive and usually lead to death within 10 days. In animals, furious rabies cause highly aggressive and excited behavior, snapping and biting at anything. Eventually paralysis will set in, causing frothing at the mouth. Furious rabies in humans causes restless, excited behavior, a strong fear of water, and sometimes a strong fear of flying. Dumb rabies in humans presents with flaccid muscle weakness, and can be confused with Guillain-Barré syndrome in humans. Urinary incontinence and ongoing fever can distinguish paralytic rabies from Guillain-Barré syndrome. Friendliness or loss of fear, daytime appearance of nocturnal animals, confusion, and aimless wandering are common in animals with dumb rabies. This form of rabies in animals is especially dangerous for humans – especially children – because animals with dumb rabies are easily approachable.

While abnormal animal behavior is an indicator of a sick or infected animal, signs of rabies in wild animals can be unreliable. Sometimes animals may be infected and may appear to be in normal, healthy condition. Because of this, caution should be taken when approaching an animal that is in an area that it should not be in or if approaching a juvenile animal. If an animal is suspect of being rabid, be extremely cautious when approaching and humanly euthanize the animal without damaging the head. Wearing rubber gloves, safety glasses/goggles, and long sleeves and pants collect the animal in a plastic garbage bag and if there was no human or pet contact, bury it in a hole deep enough that it cannot be uncovered by another animal. If human or domestic animal contact has occurred, bag the animal, put it in an ice filled cooler, and call the local health department or veterinarian’s office (if after normal business hours) for submission to a rabies testing facility.

If a suspected rabid animal has bitten a human, capture and kill the animal promptly, avoiding damage to the head, and bag and ice it as previously described. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least five minutes and apply rubbing alcohol or a strong water-iodine solution – with exception to the eyes or mouth. After cleaning the wound, seek medical attention and a qualified physician will decide whether or not to administer treatment immediately or wait until the results from the rabies testing lab come back. If unable to capture and kill the suspect animal, clean the wound and seek immediate medical attention.

For more information on rabies and other zoonotic diseases, call the Wilkes County Extension Office (706-678-2332).

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