What is Rabies?

Having trouble viewing this email? View it as a Web page.

Minnesota Board of Animal Health Reportable Disease of the Month Header

April 2017


Rabies virus

What is it? Rabies is a fatal neurologic illness in mammals caused by a virus found in the infected animal’s brain and saliva. Rabies is found in Minnesota in two wildlife carriers, skunks and bats. It can also affect domestic mammals, mammalian wildlife and people.

How is it transmitted? Rabies is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected animal, because the virus is present in the saliva. Although it’s a lot less likely, rabies can also be transmitted if a scratch, open wound, or mucous membrane of the eyes, nose, or mouth is contaminated with saliva from a rabid animal. Livestock and pets generally develop the disease following a bite from a rabid animal. A person cannot get rabies simply by petting an infected animal, nor can it be transmitted by an animal or person being sprayed by a skunk.

What are the clinical signs? Most animals show behavioral changes or neurological signs. The clinical signs of rabies in pets and livestock may vary depending on the affected animal. Cats often are aggressive. Cattle may bellow frequently and have trouble walking and swallowing. Dogs show a variety of signs ranging from aggression to difficulty swallowing and paralysis. Some animals die rapidly without marked clinic signs. The virus incubates at different rates in different species and ranges from a few days to a few months.

How is it diagnosed? Testing for rabies in animals is done by submitting the appropriate sample to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Only a laboratory can confirm a rabies diagnosis. Samples are taken from both sides of the suspected animal’s brain at the Diagnostic Laboratory and then sent to the Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory for testing. Minnesota uses the direct fluorescent antibody test. There is no available rabies test for live animals.

Is there a risk to people? Yes, people can get rabies too. A pet dog, cat or ferret that bites a person must be confined and observed for 10 days or euthanized and tested for rabies. Keeping pets vaccinated against the virus and avoiding exposure to wild animals will help avoid potential exposure. If a person is bitten by an animal, they should clean the affected area with soap and water and seek medical attention from their physician or contact the Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-5414.

How can it be prevented? A strong surveillance program and the rabies vaccine can help stop the spread of this disease. Owners of dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses can have their veterinarian vaccinate their animals. Livestock should be vaccinated when appropriate and your veterinarian can help determine if it’s necessary. Do not let your pets wander unrestrained or unsupervised. Call animal control if you see stray animals in your neighborhood since these animals may be unvaccinated or carry disease. For questions on rabies exposure to domestic animals call 651-201-6808.  If you have questions on rabies in people, please contact the Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-5414.