Rabies is once again making headlines around the globe. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently reported that an organ transplant patient infected with raccoon rabies died 18 months after receiving a new kidney. Also inciting fear are a rabid bat found on the beach in Seattle’s Madison Park and a fox in Arlington, Mass., presumed to be infected with rabies.

We can't draw any definitive conclusions about a "rabies epidemic," but the recent reports of rabies across the country are certainly a wake-up call. Fortunately, Dr. Allison Kean of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colo. has a few tips for keeping yourself and your critters safe.

What Is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous systems of animals. It is transmitted among mammals, most commonly through biting.

“It’s transmitted from the saliva of an affected animal...so it actually has to get into a puncture wound, bite wound, or mucus membrane,” Kean said. This means that if a rabid animal spits at or on you, you might not become infected, as long as the saliva doesn’t enter your mouth or another bodily opening. 

Rabies can affect any mammal, but usually infects wild animals like skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats. However, humans are most often killed by the bites of rabid dogs.

Rabies is so virulent that it was actually used as a biological weapon in ancient times. According to Stanford University researcher Adrienne Mayor, an Indian war manual from the 4th century BC includes a recipe for poison arrows made from the blood of rabid muskrats. Leonardo da Vinci even conceived of a rabies "bomb" made of sulfur, arsenic, tarantula venom, toxic toads, and the saliva of mad dogs.

What Does Rabies Infection Look Like?

“That classic picture that we see in the movies, unfortunately, is this vicious, salivating animal, but any animal that is just doing something abnormally is potentially suspect,” Kean said.

A rabid animal may display seizures, abnormal drooling, or paralysis, but any type of unusual behavior besides aggressiveness, especially in your own animals, is cause for concern. These symptoms may not be immediately apparent, sometimes taking up to six months to surface.

In humans, the disease produces flu-like symptoms, such as fever, after exposure to a rabid animal, said Kean.

How to Protect Yourself From Rabies

In hospital settings, doctors must take precautions to screen patients and potential blood and organ donors for the virus.

According to JAMA recommendations, “Rabies should be considered in patients with acute progressive encephalitis of unexplained etiology, especially for potential organ donors. A standard evaluation of potential donors who meet screening criteria for infectious encephalitis should be considered, and risks and benefits for recipients of organs from these donors should be evaluated.”

Common sense in the presence of animals, especially wild ones, goes a long way toward preventing rabies infections.

“If you have pets, make sure they’re vaccinated for rabies,” Kean said. “Any and all pets should be.”

Any animals acting strangely should be avoided, especially if they could be infected. Kean says to be aware of unusual behaviors, such as nocturnal animals walking around in the daytime, or animals that appear as if they’re “drunk and staggering.”

If you are bitten by an animal, Kean says it’s ideal to get animal control involved as soon as possible so the animal can be captured and properly examined for rabies. Be sure to wash the affected area and seek medical attention immediately.

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