Rabies: How to Help Prevent

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Rabid Rabbits, Mad Cats, and How Soap and Water Could Help Prevent Rabies

Crazy-looking sock bunny

A crazy bunny. Rabbits can get rabies too.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Weird Fact: According to the CDC, in the United States, more cats than dogs were reported with rabies between 2000 and 2004. Did you know rabbits can get rabies too? That one’s rare, but if you’re outside, and out of nowhere a rabbit attacks, just know it could be a rabid rabbit.

Rabies is a virus spread through saliva that affects the brain and is a death sentence. I can count on my hands the worldwide total number to ever survive without getting the vaccine. The latest survival was a girl scratched by a feral cat. Somehow the saliva got into the wound.

Fortunately, though, the rabies vaccine works well. It’s a series of shots you get after being bitten by an animal that prompt your body to produce antibodies to kill the virus. Without these immunizations giving your immune system a head start, it becomes overwhelmed by the rapidly multiplying virus.

Still, there are a few things you can do to decrease your odds of coming down with rabies in the first place.

Animals to Avoid

Raccoon, the most-common carrier of rabies in the U.S.

Cute little raccoons are the most-common carriers of rabies in the United States. And they don't always seem sick.

Before dogs were routinely vaccinated, they used to be the most common rabies carriers. They still are in most parts of the world, but, in the U.S., it’s raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes, in that order. Here’s a list of animals that can get rabies, and what you should do if one bites you or if you come in contact with the saliva in any way.

The CDC recommends getting the rabies shots as soon as possible but considers it “urgent” and not an “emergency.” To me, that means, if there’s a disaster, don’t risk life and limb to get immediate help. But you must try to get the shots started within a day—three tops.

There’s been no known human-to-human transmission except through corneal and organ transplants. In a few rare cases, no one knew the donor had died of rabies—certainly a sign that rabies may be underdiagnosed as a cause of death.

What to Do Until You Can Get the Rabies Vaccine

No matter the setting, it’s important that you wash the bite wounds quickly and thoroughly. Of course, this decreases your risk for bacterial infection, but it’s also your best bet of cleaning away as much of the rabies virus as possible. The less of the virus there is on the wound, the better chance your body has of producing enough antibodies to kill what remains before it causes the disease.

  1. Wash the wound with soap and water.
  2. Use a little pressure from a faucet, plastic bag, or syringe to squirt the water deep into the wound. I have a video on this. The irrigation begins around the 1:40 time.
  3. Next, wash the wound with povidine-iodine solution. If that’s not available, use alcohol.
  4. Unless the wound is gaping open, don’t close it. Keep it open, and clean it once or twice a day. That rule goes for all bites and puncture wounds.
  5. If it gets red or warm or has any other sign of bacterial infection, start antibiotics.
  6. Hopefully you’re up-to-date on your tetanus shot. The booster lasts 10 years.

Special Rabies Situations

Some rabid animals look sick; others are aggressive—the bite is unprovoked. That’s not the case for rabid raccoons. Many people have been bitten by a seemingly healthy, docile raccoon that only bit after the person tried to capture or kill it, and the raccoon turned out to have rabies.

Bats have sharp, tiny teeth. You can be bitten by a bat without knowing it or even seeing a wound. If you come into physical contact with a bat, or if you, say, find a bat in your room and can’t guarantee the bat hasn’t bitten you because you’ve been asleep, you must get rabies shots. People have developed rabies in both of these scenarios.

Spelunkers are some of the rare people advised to get a set of pre-exposure rabies vaccines. They’ve been known to get rabies after being in bat-filled caves (we’re talking thousands), even with no direct contact. Rabies is not carried in feces or urine, so it’s hypothesized the cavers got it from the dense saliva carried in the air.

The Rabies Shots

One other thing. There used to be horror stories of how painful rabies shots were. I read that now, that’s not the case.

Has anyone had the shots? Anyone have experience with rabies? Questions?

“Bad Bunneh” sock-bunny photo by The Bunny Maker on Flickr. “So Hungry” raccoon photo by Powerkey on Flickr.

  • Jeremy Armour

    I recently saw a show about a bow hunter who was attacked by a pack of coyotes and had to get the rabies vaccine. (The show’s called ‘Fight to Survive’, or something like that, and it’s on either on the Outdoor Channel or the Sportsman’s Channel. I don’t remember which.) In the interview he said that the shots were extremely painful, and it was only a year or two ago when he was attacked.

    In another show about scary diseases, and I have no idea what the title of this show was or what channel it was on, three organ recipients got rabies from the donor and died as a result. The donor had been acting crazy when he was brought into the hospital, but since he was a drug addict and had so many drugs in his system at the time of his death no one suspected rabies. Everyone assumed that he was acting crazy because of the drugs, and three people died because of it. The CDC’s investigation showed that he had been bitten on the chest by a bat and never sought medical treatment after the bite. The scary thing is that, if I’m not mistaken, there’s no way to test for rabies before an organ transplant. It takes too long, and by the time the results of the test would be available the organs would no longer be viable.

    • Jeremy Armour

      I found the first show. It’s ‘Fight to Survive’ on the Outdoor Channel Mondays at 22:00.

      • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

        Thanks for sharing, Jeremy.

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  • i dont cry (most of the time0

    even though everybody in the comments is crying about how painfull these rabies shots are if you are bitten DO NOT HESITATE TO GET THE RABIE SHOTS!!! unless you want to die.

  • shelly

    An elderly woman here went for a swim last year and was attacked by a rabid beaver!

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Shelly, that’s scary. Hope she’s ok now.

  • Robin DVM

    I’ve gotten the vaccine, it was not that big of a deal and not horribly expensive. If I am exposed I still need post exposure vaccines. With rabies it’s important to remember that all mammals can get it and it can have a multitude of signs in animals (we’re taught it’s the ‘great pretender’). So your best bet is to stay away from animals acting strange… and don’t eat them either.

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks, Robin.

  • Cindy long

    Earlier this year, a woman died from rabies.She picked up a bat that was on the ground and was bitten. She did not feel the bat bite her,so she thought no more about it.She did not go to the dr,till a month later,when she was diagnosed with rabies.She was given the rabies shots but it was too late and she did later die.This happened in SC.
    If you see a bat on the ground,its sick or it has rabies do not handle.

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks Cindy. Great advice.

  • Dmccoy

    My son’s friend was bit by a bat in the daytime, and had to get the series of rabies shots in his hand. This was approx. 3 years ago. They were very painful, and they had to be done in a certain succession (day-wise). I don’t remember how many, but it was really quite an ordeal. I would say that the information above that they aren’t painful anymore is probably inaccurate. :) Thank you for the information though, very handy!

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Good to know. Thanks for sharing. Yes, it does sound like an ordeal.