Massachusetts Department of Public Health - Division of Epidemiology - 150 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. 02111
617 - 522 - 3700, x420 or x425
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) that is almost always fatal. Rabies in humans is very rare in the U.S., but rabies in animals especially wildlife - is common in some parts of the country.
How is Rabies spread?
The rabies virus lives in the saliva (spit) and other body fluids of infected animals and is spread when they bite or scratch. The virus can also be spread id one of these body fluids touches broken skin or a mucous membrane (in the mouth, nose or eyes). In caves crowed with bats, it is even possible (but extremely rare) to inhale the virus floating in the air.
What kind of animals spread rabies?
The rabies virus can infect any mammal (if it has hair or fur, it's a mammal), but it is only common among certain ones like bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Rabies is very rare among rodents like squirrels, rats, mice and chipmunks. Thanks to vaccines, rabies is extremely rare among pets and farm animals.
How can you tell if an animal is rabid?
Rabid animals usually behave strangely after the virus attacks their brain cells. Rabid animals often become aggressive, hyperactive, and easily frightened, so they will attack people or other animals for no real reason. Not all rabid animals act this way, however, so you should avoid all wild animals - especially bats, skunks, foxes and raccoons.
What should you do if you think you have been exposed to rabies?
If you have been bitten or scratched by a wild animal, or a pet or farm animal that has been behaving oddly, follow these steps:
1. Wash the wound with soap and water right away for at least five minutes.
2. Call your local board of health and your doctor, nurse or health center as soon as you finish washing. They will help you decide if you need to be treated for rabies. Follow their instructions to the letter.
3. Contact your local animal control officer to catch or find the animal that bit you. Your local board of health can tell you how to get it tested by the State Rabies Lab.
4. If your pet has been bitten or scratched by an animal you think might be rabid, follow the same steps but call your pet's veterinarian instead of your own doctor in step 2.
How can you prevent rabies?
Avoid wild animals, especially bats, skunks, foxes and raccoons. Avoid any animal - wild, farm or pet - that behaves oddly, and report it to your city or town's animal control officer.
Make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies and that their shots are up to date. By law, all dogs must be vaccinated against rabies. Cats should also get rabies shots because they are hunters by nature and often have contact with animals at high risk for rabies.
Fasten trash can lids tightly. Garbage attracts animals (like skunks, and raccoons) looking for an easy meal.
Teach your children to avoid wildlife, strays, and all other animals they don't know well. Do not let your children (or pets) roam freely in areas where wild animals live.
It is against the law to keep wild animals such as skunks and raccoons as pets.
If you have bats living in your house, talk to a professional
Do not handle dead, sick, or injured wild animals yourself; call the police or animal control officer. If you must handle the animal, use heavy gloves, sticks or other tools to avoid direct contact.
If you are bitten or scratched by an unfamiliar animal, do not try to guess if it is rabid. Call your doctor and local board of health for advice.
Animal control officers, veterinarians and their assistants, and others who have a lot of contact with strays or wildlife should think about getting routine rabies vaccinations to protect themselves before they are exposed to the virus.
Page Updated: Thursday October 30, 2008