Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system of mammals. It is usually transmitted by an infected animal's bite or contact with an infected animal's saliva. The incubation period, the period between exposure to the disease and onset of symptoms, ranges from two weeks to many months. Like other viral infections, rabies does not respond to antibiotic treatment. It is almost always fatal once symptoms occur. These symptoms may include behavior changes, like unusual aggressiveness or paralysis (frequently beginning in the hind legs or the throat of an animal). Prompt vaccination following a bite can prevent rabies in humans. Up-to-date vaccinations in dogs, cats, and livestock, prior to exposure, can also protect animals against the disease.
Avoiding encounters with wildlife can reduce the risk of exposure to rabies. Do not attempt to handle or capture sick or apparently "orphaned" wildlife. Avoid animals acting strangely, especially those that act unusually tame, aggressive, or paralyzed. Report animals suspected of rabies to Animal Services.
Make sure that all dogs and cats have up-to-date rabies vaccinations. The rabies vaccination certificate should indicate when booster shots are due. If that information is not available, contact your veterinarian. Dogs and cats will be protected for one to three years (depending on the vaccine received) if they are vaccinated after four months of age and receive a booster injection one year later. There is presently no vaccine licensed for use on wildlife or exotic pets.
Rabies vaccinations cause an animal's immune system to develop antibodies, however not all animals develop the same level of immunity. Therefore it is important that owners try to minimize contacts between domestic and wild animals. Keep your property free of exposed garbage, pet food, stored bird seed, and other foods that may attract wild animals.
Vaccinated pets and other domestic animals in contact with suspected rabid animals must receive a booster dose of vaccine within 48 hours of exposure. Domestic animals not protected by a current vaccination must be confined strictly for six months or be destroyed immediately.
Rabies vaccination is available for cattle, horses, and sheep. Although vaccination of all livestock may be too costly, inoculation of valuable animals should be considered. Vaccinate livestock in contact with the general public, in shipment to or from rabies outbreak areas or housed in structures known to be occupied by raccoons or bats. Barns, fences, and other barriers should be kept in good repair to keep out sick wildlife. Keep doors closed whenever possible, especially at night.
If your animal appears to be sick or acts abnormally, call a veterinarian. Report suspected cases of rabies in animals to Animal Services.
If you are bitten or scratched by any animal, or get saliva from a rabies-suspect animal into an open wound or onto a mucous membrane, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately, and call Animal Services to report the bite. It is CRITICAL to report the bite to Animal Services because rabies treatments may be needed for the person who was bitten & to ensure that the possibly rabid animal is evaluated. Contact with a bat in a closed room can be dangerous. Contact Animal Services for guidance. Disinfect any surface contaminated with tissues or fluids from a rabies-suspect animal with 10% solution of household bleach in water (one part bleach to nine parts water).
A dog, cat, or other domestic animal inflicting a bite should be observed for 10 days after the incident. As long as the animal remains healthy for that period, no risk of transmission exists. If the animal develops signs of rabies or dies during the period, or belongs to a wildlife or exotic species, it must be euthanized humanely and arrangements made for the rabies examination. Routine examination of small rodents, rabbits, and hares is not necessary, since these animals are essentially free of rabies. Bats and rabies-suspect terrestrial carnivores should be presumed rabid until confirmed negative by laboratory diagnosis, and, therefore, require urgent and careful handling.
If the rabies-suspect biting animal cannot be observed or tested, or is found to be rabid, treatment must begin immediately. The treatment for humans exposed to rabies consists of a dose of rabies-immune globulin administered as soon as possible after the exposure. The first of four doses of rabies vaccine is given at the same time, with the remaining injections given one each on days 3, 7 and 14 following the initial injection.
Rabies is endemic in California, which means that it is always present. Each year, counties throughout California, including El Dorado County, identify rabid animals. Skunks and bats are the most common carriers of rabies, but other animals can contract rabies if exposed. Rabies vaccinations are critical to prevent the spread of rabies among domestic animals.
For professional resources, reference materials, and other information, please visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Rabies Section, the California Department of Health Services' Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory Branch, or the California Association of Public Health Laboratory Directors.