Rabies is caused by a virus that is present in the saliva of infected animals and is transmitted primarily through the bite of an infected animal to people or other animals. Transmission can also occur when saliva from a rabid animal is in contact with an open cut, the mouth or the eyes. The virus binds to nerve tissue and migrates to the brain where it replicates and is then shed in the saliva when the animal becomes ill. The incubation period (the time from exposure to illness) of rabies can vary between 2 weeks to 6 months or longer, but usually is between 1 and 3 months.
It is common practice to quarantine a domestic animal (dog or cat) that bites a person for 10 days. If the animal develops clinical signs of rabies or dies within this period, brain tissue samples are sent to the New Jersey State Rabies Laboratory in Trenton, New Jersey for testing. A positive diagnosis for rabies can be made only by laboratory examination of brain tissue, after the death of the animal.
What are the symptoms of Rabies?
Rabies virus causes an inflammation of the part of the brain which regulates normal behavior, often causing aggressive behavior, and is usually fatal once illness develops. The early clinical signs are subtle and usually include elevated temperature, strange behavior, and difficulty swallowing. Wild animals that are normally out only at night may be seen during the day, approaching humans and domestic pets that they ordinarily would avoid. As the disease progresses, animals may become increasingly agitated, develop repetitious vocalizations, and may attack without fear or provocation. Rabid animals are often extremely aggressive. In a few days after illness onset, animals may develop paralysis, and seizures, before lapsing into a coma and dying.
Which animals are affected by Rabies?
Raccoon rabies spread into New Jersey in 1989 and is now established throughout the State. The majority of these cases are in raccoons but skunks, foxes, groundhogs, and cats—especially unvaccinated free-roaming cats—are also commonly documented to be infected with raccoon rabies. There are also strains of rabies associated with bats. Vaccinated pets and small rodents such as squirrel, mice and rats are very low risk for rabies infection. However, all mammals can be infected with rabies.
What are the procedures if a person is bitten or scratched by an animal?
Wash the wound immediately with plenty of water and soap.
Learn as much as you can about the animal. If the animal is with an owner, get the owner's name and address. If it is a wild or stray animal, capture or contain the animal only if it is possible to do without endangering yourself. Look to see if there are any features that will allow you to identify it later on.
Call your local animal control office or police department immediately for assistance.
Contact your physician or local emergency room. Immediately seek medical care for wounds and consultation regarding the need for rabies preventive treatment.
Report the incident to your local health department.
Can rabies be prevented?
Yes, vaccination of dogs, cats, and other domestic animals, including prompt boosters, is a safe and effective way to prevent rabies transmission to humans, well as to pets and other domestic animals. Controlling stray animals through patrolling, capture, and impoundment and/or returning to pets to owners will decrease the spread of rabies. Residents are advised to avoid contact with wildlife and should never feed wild animals or keep them as pets. Do not attempt to remove or relocate wildlife without consulting a professional. Report all animals that are displaying unusual or vicious behavior to the local Animal Control Office.
Is Raccoon Rabies different from other rabies?
Yes. Raccoon rabies is different from the types of rabies found in bats and other strains that are carried by skunks and foxes elsewhere in the United States (US). Raccoon rabies is a strain of rabies that is spread mainly by raccoons and since there is a large raccoon population in all areas of New Jersey, residents should take precautions to prevent the spread of this strain of the disease.
Do bats carry a different type of rabies?
Throughout the US there are types of the rabies virus associated with bats. Bat rabies is responsible for the majority of human rabies fatalities occurring in the US. In New Jersey, about 40 bats are documented to be infected with rabies annually. Bat bites may be small and undetected so it is recommended to always capture and test bats that have been in contact with people. The local health department and animal control office can assist residents in addressing situations where bats are roosting in and around homes or seen flying in the living space.
The bottom line on rabies...
When rabies was first introduced into New Jersey in 1989, there were a large number of animal rabies cases and human exposures as the disease spread throughout the State. Although the number of cases diagnosed in animals has declined, an average of about 280 animal cases are confirmed annually. Rabid raccoons, bats, and cats still pose a significant threat of transmitting this disease to people and pets. Public education and preventative measures are effective in keeping this disease under control. For more information please contact your local Animal Control Office, local health department or email the NJCACOA.
April 2011 Rabies Update provided by:
Colin T. Campbell, D.V.M., C.P.M.
Deputy State Public Health Veterinarian
New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services
Infectious and Zoonotic Disease Program
135 E. State St.
P.O. Box 369
Trenton, NJ 08625-0369
Phone: (609) 826-4872
Fax: (609) 826-4874