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All About Rabies

What is rabies?

Rabies is an infectious disease caused by a virus that infects nerves in mammals. The rabies virus travels to the brain through nerves. Once it reaches the brain, the virus reproduces and then travels through the nerves back to most parts of the body.

Eventually, the virus reaches the salivary glands where it is released into the saliva in the mouth. By this time, the disease has usually damaged the brain, producing either submissive or violent behaviour. It eventually causes death.

How is rabies spread?

Rabies is spread by infected animals to other mammals (including humans) through saliva. This can occur in three main ways:

  • biting

  • contact with the virus through an open cut, sore or wound

  • contact with the virus through mucous membranes (mouth, nasal cavity, eyes

  • careless handling of a dead rabid animal

Usually, people come into contact with rabies through their pets. Rabies in a single dog or cat can expose many human beings. Only 10% of reported rabid animals are cats or dogs, but they cause about 60% of all incidents requiring human post-exposure vaccination.

rabid dog
A rabid hound.
Rabies and You

What should I do if a suspected rabid animal bites me?

Wash the bite or scratch well with soap and warm water, immediately.

Call your family physician, or go to the nearest hospital for treatment.

Rabies is deadly, so all bites and scratches from a suspect animal must be reported.

Either you, your doctor or the hospital emergency department must report the incident to the local health unit.

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal with rabies, you will get a series of five shots of post-exposure rabies vaccine.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

In humans: early symptoms of rabies may include numbness around the site of the bite, fever, headache, and general malaise. Later symptoms may include muscle spasms and hydrophobia (fear of water). In an adult, clinical symptoms can appear as soon as two weeks after exposure, or up to one year following exposure.

Once symptoms appear, death is imminent.

How can I reduce my risk of rabies exposure?

  • Make sure your dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies every three years (annually in some cases—check with your veterinarian).

  • Don't allow your pets to wander, particularly at night.

  • Keep your distance form unfamiliar animals, particularly ones that appear sick, even if they are babies.
  • Don't feed wildlife.

  • Attempt to prevent bats from getting inside your home.


Preventing a Bite

When an animal might bite:

  • When they feel threatened or afraid

  • When they protect their territory or food

  • When they get excited (even in play)

  • When they don’t know you

  • When their "chase response" is triggered

  • When they have been trained to be aggressive

  • When they are in pain

What not to do around animals: 

  • Never stare into their eyes

  • Never pick up an injured animal

  • Never disturb a sleeping animal

  • Never approach an animal that is eating

  • Never run past an animal

  • Never go up to a strange animal

  • Never touch or feed any wild animal

If you're attacked:

  • "Feed" it your jacket, purse, bike, anything that may distract it and give it something else to bite

  • If you fall or are knocked down, curl into a ball with your hands over your head and neck

  • Try not to scream or roll around.

  • Try to remain calm and do not try to hit or kick the animal


Bat bites are often undectable on people. If you find a dead bat in your house, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Rabies in Maine: A Personal Account

I woke up one Sunday morning to find a bat in my bed. As I'd drifted in and out of sleep, I'd been aware of my cat, Jesse, tearing around the room as he sometimes does when chasing a moth or other flying insect. Then I heard the beat of wings close to my head and was instantly awake. That was no moth!

I sat up and tried to see in the faint light of dawn. Jesse was sitting beside me on the bed, pawing at my blanket. I lifted the corner and saw a bat next to my leg. As I leaped from bed, the bat flew up. Grabbing the sheet, I threw it over him and ran from the room, closing the door behind me.

When I returned with a tupperware container, the bat and the cat were both sitting on the back of my reading chair in the bedroom. I easily captured the bat in the tupperware container and set it outside, reluctant to let it go for fear that it would get back into the house.

I was puzzled about how the bat got into my new house, but I was soon to find out, after encountering a second bat the next night. Once again, Jesse was my bat detector. Hearing him running and swatting at something under the bed, I lifted the dust ruffle and out flew bat number two. This time I called for reinforcements--my neighbors, who arrived with a net and leather gloves and after some excitement and a few screams as the bat swooped towards us, we captured him and set him free.

My neighbor determined that the only possible entry point was under the radiators. Sure enough, the next day when my builder came out to check things out, he found a small gap in the plywood between the chimney chase and the bedroom wall behind the radiator. An examination of the outside of the house revealed several small gaps that could allow a bat to enter the attic or chimney chase.

As a result of my bat encounters, I'm in the process of going through the rabies vaccine, a very expensive series of five shots plus an initial dose of immuno globulin to give a boost to my immune system for immediate protection until the vaccine begins to work. Had I saved the bats for testing and the results had come back negative for rabies, I could have saved myself the aggravation and worry of going through the vaccination process, plus approximately $2000 in medical costs for the vaccine.

Rabies is rare in humans, but the risk of contracting rabies from contact with possibly infected wild animals is very real. Rabies in animals is increasing dramatically, which increases the threat to humans. If you're bitten by a wild animal or a pet, especially if the attack is unprovoked, please consult your doctor.

In my case, the State Department of Health recommended considering the vaccination because of a Centers for Disease Control recommendation that someone who has been asleep in a room with a bat in it undergo the rabies vaccine. Bats have been known to bite people without them knowing it, especially in their sleep. Bite marks can be undetectable.

Rabies and Animals

What animals should you look out for? Raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats are the most common carriers of rabies. However, any mammal can potentially carry the virus, so be on the lookout for animals that are acting strangely, including your own housepets.

Signs and Symptoms:

  • Rabies should be suspected in any wild animal exhibiting any behaviour considered “abnormal”, including:

    • loss of fear or unusual friendliness

    • excitation or aggression

    • depression

    • incoordination

    • paralysis

    • convulsions or seizures

    • abnormal vocalizations

    • appearance of nocturnal creatures during the day

    • signs of choking or inability to drink or swallow food

    • drooling of saliva or frothing at the mouth

    • in carnivores, evidence of having attacked porcupines

Bats, unlike many mammals with rabies, may get sick and die before being observed or showing symptoms typically found in other mammals.

Rabies can manifest itself in two different ways: dumb rabies and furious rabies.

Dumb Rabies

  • Some animals become depressed and retreat to isolated places.

  • Loses fear of humans.

  • A normally nocturnal animal may be active during the day.

  • Signs of paralysis. Head and neck paralysis may result in abnormal facial expressions, drooping head or sagging jaw. Body paralysis usually begins in the hind limbs and spreads to the rest of the body.

Furious Rabies

  • Displays extreme excitement and aggression.

  • Gnaws and bites its own limbs.

  • Attacks objects or other animals.

  • Bouts of furious rabies usually alternate with periods of depression.