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Rabies - facts & safety guidelines

Courtesy of Humane Society of the US

Pictured: Interestingly, because of their body temperature, opossums rarely incubate the rabies virus. Nevertheless, everyone should always use caution around wildlife and domesticated animals that are unfamiliar.

Thanks to widespread pet vaccinations, effective post-exposure treatment and the relative rarity of undetected bites by rabid animals, the number of human deaths in the United States caused by rabies has declined to an average of only one or two per year - far less than the number of human fatalities caused by lightning strikes and bad hamburgers.
However, this doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions to protect yourself, your family and your pets. The best ways to guard against rabies include:
Despite the long odds of contracting rabies, the remote possibility of infection exists and should not be taken lightly:
• Don't approach or handle wild animals.
• Vaccinate pets - both cats and dogs - and any free-roaming cats under your care.
• Contact a local animal control, veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator if you see a wild animal that may be sick. Don't handle sick wildlife! In Bandera call 830-796-7331.
• If your pet is bitten by any wild animal, get medical advice from your veterinarian immediately.
• If a person is bitten by a wild animal, scrub the wound immediately and aggressively with soap and water, use antiseptic soap such as betadine or Nolvasan® if available. Flush the wound thoroughly with water then go to your doctor or an emergency room.
• If possible, capture the animal so it can be tested for rabies. However, unless you can do it without risking further bites, leave this task to animal control professionals.
• If you find a bat in a room where someone was sleeping or where children might have had contact with him, the medical providers with the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that you assume the bat has bitten the sleeper or children and take the step for a known bite. CDC suspects that adults may overlook and children may underreport the bites of tiny bat teeth.
• Timely treatment after a bite or other exposure is 100 percent effective. The very few people who die from rabies are those who don't get timely treatment.
What are signs of rabies?
Rabies (Lyssavirus) is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system in mammals. It's transmitted through the saliva a few days before death when the animal "sheds" the virus. Rabies is not transmitted through the blood, urine or feces of an infected animal, nor is it spread airborne through the open environment. Because it affects the nervous system, most rabid animals behave abnormally.
In the "furious" form, wild animals may appear to be agitated, bite or snap at imaginary and real objects and drool excessively. However, in the "dumb" form, wild animals may appear tame and seem to have no fear of humans.
Other signs include the animal appearing excessively drunk or wobbly, circling, seeming partially paralyzed, acting disorientated or mutilating itself. However, most of these signs can also be indicative of other diseases like distemper or lead poisoning. There are few behavioral signs that are telltale of rabies alone.
If a typically nocturnal animal, such as a raccoon or skunk, is active during the day and exhibiting abnormal behavior, seek advice from your local animal control, humane society, wildlife rehabilitator or state wildlife agency. In Bandera, call 830-796-3771.
Key facts
• Rabies travels from the brain to the salivary glands during the final stage of the disease. This is when an animal can spread the disease, most commonly through a bite.
• Rabies can't go through unbroken skin. People can get rabies only from a bite from a rabid animal or possibly through scratches, abrasions, open wounds or mucous membranes in contact with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal.
• The rabies virus is short-lived when exposed to open air. It can only survive in saliva and dies when the animal's saliva dries up.
• If you handle a pet who has been in a fight with a potentially rabid animal, take precautions such as wearing gloves to keep any still-fresh saliva from getting into an open wound.
Which species carry rabies?
Any warm-blooded mammal can carry or contract rabies, but in North America the primary carriers are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes and coyotes. Thanks to an increase in pet vaccinations, wildlife now account for more than 90 percent of all reported rabies cases.
Bats suffering from rabies are not limited to any particular area but scattered widely. Foxes in western Alaska, parts of Arizona and Texas and the eastern United States are victims more frequently than foxes in other areas. Coyotes with rabies have been found in southern Texas in the past but rarely in recent years.
Rodents including squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs, as well as rabbits and hares rarely get rabies. Also, opossums are amazingly resistant to rabies.
For the last 15 years, federal and state wildlife officials have distributed vaccine-laden baits that the target animals eat and esentially vaccinate themselves. Currently, oral rabies vaccination of wildlife focuses on halting the spread of specific types of rabies in targeted carrier species. Next, it's hoped that this tool can shrink the disease's range.