Everyone's talking about RABIES

Courtesy of Oregon VMA 

Contributions by Emilio DeBess DVM

Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal.  It is an infectious viral disease that affects the nervous system and is transmitted by a bite or saliva from a rabid animal.

Worldwide, about one person dies of rabies every 10 minutes, mostly in Africa and Asia.  Although human rabies is relatively rare in the United States, where there are typically only a few cases per year, animal bites are very common.  As a result, thousands of people each year receive rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP.  The recommended treatment is rabies immune globulin (RIG) in combination with 4 vaccine doses on days 0, 3, 7 and 14, which elicits adequate immune responses.

In Oregon and the Pacific NW, bats are the primary carriers of rabies.  Experts urge avoiding bats or animals that appear to be sick, flopping around, or behaving unusually, and keeping pets current on rabies vaccinations.

So far in 2014, Oregon has identified  six animal cases of rabies, one fox in Lane County, and five bats — one in Marion, Yamhill and Lake Counties, and two in Benton.

In late July, Lane County Public Health said that a fox found in a Junction City family’s barn tested positive for rabies.  The fox had lived in the barn for about a week and had typical symptoms of dumb rabies (manifested as depression, lethargy and a seemingly overly tame disposition).  This was the first animal to test positive for rabies in Oregon in 2014. 

Rabies is endemic in the bat population, but only rarely seen in foxes, especially in Lane County.  In fact, this was the first report of a rabid fox in Lane County since the 1960s.  "All pet owners should make certain their dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies,” says Lane County Communicable Disease Supervisor, Cindy Morgan.  “When our pets are protected from rabies, it provides a buffer zone of immune animals between humans and rabid wild animals such as foxes.”  The fox was picked up by the Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Corvallis, and tested and confirmed for rabies at the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, according to Emilio DeBess, Oregon State Public Health Veterinarian.


Bats play an important role in the ecosystem, especially in controlling insects at night.  An important insect predator, they often eat mosquitoes, and can catch over 1,000 tiny insects in an hour.  Bats emerge from hibernation in early spring and remain active until late fall; they are most active in warm weather.

Most often, humans are exposed to rabies by picking up what seems to be a sick or injured bat.  If you find a bat during daylight hours, it is most likely unhealthy and should be avoided.

Anyone bitten by a bat should be vaccinated for rabies immediately if the bat is not available for testing.  Cats increase the risk by playing with bats and taking them into homes.

If you are scratched or bitten by a bat, immediately clean the wound.  If the bat has been captured, do not crush it or throw it away, as intact bats can be tested for rabies, which can avoid post exposure rabies shots.

Every year, approximately 10 percent of bats tested for rabies test positive.  Bats are only tested for rabies when a person or a pet has had physical contact with them.


Every year more than 4.5 million people in the US are bitten by a dog.  Almost one in five of those — about 885,000 — require medical attention; half are children.


A review of animal bites reported by the local health departments identified 1,939 people who were bitten by animals in Oregon in 2013.  Of the bites reported, 64% were by dogs, 25% bites were by cats, and 2.8% by bats.  Fifty-seven percent of bite victims were women.  Of bitten males, 79% suffered dog bites, and only 18% reported cat bites.  Of females, 63% were bitten by dogs and 34% by cats.  Rates of reported animal bites were highest in persons under age 9, and 50–69.  The vast majority of bites in children 9 or younger were by dogs (97.6%).  The percentage of cat bites as well as bat bites seemed to increase with age.


If you are bitten by any animal — even a household pet but especially by a wild animal such as a bat — it is important to clean the wound and consult with doctor immediately.


    • Irrigate and cleanse the wound;

    • Primary closure if the wound is low-risk for developing infection;

    • Prophylactic antibiotics for high-risk wounds or people with  immune deficiency;

    • Rabies post-exposure treatment depending on circumstances of bite and vaccination status;

    • Administration of tetanus vaccine if the person has not been adequately vaccinated.

According to Oregon law, dogs, cats or ferrets that bite humans should be quarantined for 10 days.  If any other animal bites a human, euthanasia and rabies testing of the animal is recommended.


Dogs must be vaccinated against rabies by law.  It is recommended that cats and ferrets are also vaccinated for rabies.  Some counties, such as Multnomah, require vaccinating cats for rabies.  Cats are by far the most likely domestic animal to come in contact with a rabid bat, therefore vaccinating them for rabies is important and necessary to protect family members and other pets.  Vaccinating pets not only protects them, but it provides a “buffer zone” between humans and rabid wild animals.


Oregon law requires that unvaccinated pets that may have been in contact with rabid animals be vaccinated and quarantined for six months or euthanized.  The contact animal, such as a bat, is considered rabid unless it is tested and is negative.

Vaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be revaccinated immediately, kept under the owner's control, and observed for 45 days.  Any illness in an isolated or confined animal should be reported immediately to the local health department.  If signs suggestive of rabies develop, the animal should be euthanized and tested.


If you plan to travel out of state or country with your pet, the vast majority of destinations require a current health certificate and a rabies vaccination to enter.  Oregon requires that animals over 4 months entering the state have a current rabies vaccination. 


Nationally, twice as many cats as dogs are reported to have rabies each year, which is why it’s so important to vaccinate them for rabies.  Cats are natural predators, and may be attracted to bats, which could be rabid.  Cats come into contact with bats far more often than other pets, and if not vaccinated, may have to be euthanized after such contact.


In the past 50+ years, no raccoons have tested positive for rabies in Oregon.  Raccoons can, and do, contract canine distemper, and can display neurologic symptoms similar to rabies.


   • Vaccinate your pets.

   • Watch wildlife from a distance.  Don’t approach or attempt to handle wild animals.

   • Do not feed wild animals.

   • Keep garbage in secure containers and away from wildlife.

   • Feed your pets indoors.

   • Seal openings in attics, basements, porches, sheds, barns and screen chimneys that might provide access to bats and other wildlife.



Animal bites in Oregonpublic.health.oregon.gov/DiseasesConditions/CommunicableDisease/CDSummaryNewsletter/Documents/2014/ohd6309.pdf

Oregon VMAoregonvma.org/care-health/rabies#sthash.PPgKuWYy.dpuf

CDC web informationwww.cdc.gov/rabies