Vet Talk

Bite Back at Rabies

Bats are the most common cause of rabies in people

Published: October 12, 2015

How important is a rabies vaccine?

Good question! A woman died last week; she was the first case of confirmed human rabies in Wyoming. She was bitten by a rabid bat.

Rabies is a viral disease that is almost always 100% fatal - maybe 99.999999%, I'm guessing - so it is not a disease to brush off lightly. That's why rabies vaccines are required for dogs everywhere in the U.S. Rabies can infect any mammal but is transmitted most often by skunks, raccoons, and bats, depending on the part of the country in which you live. All mammals are susceptible to rabies and it is fatal in all mammals; don't forget that little guys like chipmunks, rats, voles, and mice are mammals too, although sick ones are most likely be eaten by a predator. Bats are mammals even though they fly, which they do far better than a flying squirrel.

Did I mention that rabies is a truly hideous, agonizing, painful way to die?

Did I mention that you are a mammal?

Rabies is transmitted when the saliva of an infected animal is transmitted into the tissues or blood of another mammal. Generally this is through a bite, but saliva containing rabies virus dripping into an open wound will also transmit the disease (another reason to stop biting your nails). The incubation period for rabies, i.e., the time from infection to disease, is long: weeks to years! The Wyoming woman was bitten in August, and died in early October.

Hopefully she didn't drool on anyone. Saliva and an open cut is all it takes to transmit.

How do you find out if the saliva contains rabies virus? The only way to know is to:

  1. Test the brain tissue (that cannot be done on a live animal).
  2. Wait to see if the animal is still alive 10 days after the bite, as an animal who is secreting rabies virus will succumb to rabies in five to seven days. That is where the ten days of quarantine for a dog or cat who has bitten someone comes into play.

Rabies vaccine prevents the disease and that is why we vaccinate our dogs and cats: to protect them, as well as the humans they live with. It's not difficult for our companion animals to come into contact with the carriers of rabies, even cats who live strictly indoors.

Bats are the most common cause of rabies in people. Sometimes people don’t know they have been bitten. The bites are small and can happen at night when we're sleeping. If we can be bitten, so can our dog and cat. They don't even have to go outside to be exposed to rabies.

Still, you can protect yourself. If you see a bat during the day, if it is in your home or easily caught, the bat may well be sick with rabies. These bats need to be tested. Most states do rabies testing for free. Call your local animal control officer or call your local vet. Do not handle the bat without gloves, and keep children and pets away from it.

If your find your cat or dog playing with a bat, check to be sure that they are current on their rabies vaccine. If the bat does test positive for rabies, your vet will want to give a rabies booster to protect them further.

Do NOT refuse rabies vaccine because your cat is indoors only. One of my veterinary friends spayed a cat and the owner refused a rabies vaccine since the cat was only indoors. Three weeks later the cat was found playing with a bat, who later tested positive for rabies. The cat had to be euthanized as the chance of it coming down with rabies, thereby exposing ever more people to the virus, was high. What a sad day in that family’s life.

You can give them the protection they need with one little shot every few years. It is also the one and only way you can protect your beloved pets from this insanely awful disease. 

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