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What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection of certain warm-blooded animals (such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats) and is caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. It attacks the nervous system and, once symptoms develop, it is 100 percent fatal in animals, if left untreated.

  • An animal that is infected is referred to as rabid.
  • You can get it by being bitten or scratched by a rabid animal.
  • Cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid.
  • There is no known treatment for rabies once symptoms of the disease occur.
  • There is an effective vaccine given immediately after you've been bitten or scratched that stops the disease from developing.

Is rabies common?

In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the United States, cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. Individual states maintain information about animals that may carry rabies. It is best to check for region specific information if you are unsure about a specific animal and have been bitten.

Can you prevent rabies?

The best way to prevent rabies is to be safe around animals to avoid getting bitten. This includes your own pets, since they can also get infected if bitten by an infected wild animal. Some general rules include:

  • keep pets in a fenced yard or on a leash when out in public
  • select family pets carefully
  • never leave a young child alone with a pet
  • have your pets immunized against rabies and make sure all shots are kept current
  • supervise pets so they do not come into contact with wild animals
  • call your local animal control agency to remove any stray animals
  • do not try to separate fighting animals
  • avoid any strange or sick animals
  • leave animals alone when they are eating
  • do not approach or play with wild animals of any kind

Rabies | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of rabies?

It may take anywhere from five days to a year to get sick after being exposed to rabies, though the average is about two months. While symptoms may vary child to child, the most common include (in two stages):

Stage 1 (lasts two to 10 days):

  • fever
  • headache
  • not feeling well
  • decreased appetite
  • vomiting
  • pain, itching, or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound may occur

Stage 2:

  • difficulty in swallowing (sometimes referred to as "foaming at the mouth," due to the inability to swallow saliva)
  • agitation and disorientation
  • paralysis
  • may result in immediate death or coma resulting in death from other complications

What causes rabies?

When an infected (also known as rabid) animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of infected animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

Rabies | Diagnosis & Treatments

How does a doctor know that it's rabies?

A number of tests are needed to confirm or rule out rabies. Tests are performed on samples of serum, saliva, spinal fluid, and skin biopsies taken from the back of the neck. If the animal that bit your child is available for testing, that is a much easier process. One test can confirm whether rabies is present or not. If the animal isn't infected, there's no need to treat your child.

In addition, it's essential that your provide your doctor with as much of the following information as possible:

  • location of the incident
  • type of animal involved (domestic pet or wild animal)
  • part of the body involved
  • type of exposure (cut, scratch, licking of open wound)
  • number of exposures
  • whether or not the animal has been immunized against rabies
  • whether or not the animal is sick and what symptoms were present
  • whether or not the animal is available for testing or quarantine

Can rabies be treated?

Unfortunately, there is no known treatment for rabies once symptoms of the disease occur. However, there is an effective vaccine given immediately after your child has been bitten or scratched that stops the disease from developing. It may also protect high-risk people (such as veterinarians and animal handlers) before an exposure occurs.

How we approach rabies

The Boston Children's Hospital Informatics Program created HealthMap, an online resource and smart phone app that helps track the spread of contagious diseases in real time, including rabies.

Rabies | Programs & Services