We have all heard about rabies, but what is it? Rabies is a viral disease that can be deadly if not prevented or treated. In Idaho, bats are the carriers of the disease. In other areas of the country, raccoons, skunks, foxes and similar animals are the culprits. Given the vaccines now available for dogs and cats, rabies is unusual in this population, though “wild dogs” and “feral cats” who might have interacted with a bat or some other infected animal is still a concern.
Rabies spreads to people and animals if they are bitten or scratched by an animal that is infected. This is one reason why it is best not to approach, pet, or attempt to befriend strange animals. On very rare occasion, it can be transmitted through skin abrasions or the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, and eyes. In humans, the virus enters by a bite from an infected animal. The virus multiplies in the peripheral nervous system and then travels up to the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain). Once the virus reaches the brain, it causes fatal encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
In animals, things happen a little differently. Once they are bit by the rabid animal the virus enters the wound. The virus travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and brain in approximately 3-12 weeks. There may or may not be any sign of infection during this time. Once the virus reaches the brain, it multiplies rapidly and passes to the salivary glands. This is when symptoms start to appear. Usually, the animal dies within 7 days of becoming sick – thus the need to quarantine an animal for 7 days when rabies is suspected.
Signs and symptoms of rabies vary. The initial symptoms can be similar to the flu — general weakness or discomfort, fever, or headaches that can last for days. At the site of the bite, there can be some discomfort like a prickling or an itching sensation. These can go on for two to ten days. Afterwards a person can have alternating moods, shifting between periods of agitation to periods of calmness. Cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, and confusion can also occur. There may be spasms of the muscles of the mouth and pharynx when there is an air draft or during swallowing. Delirium, abnormal behaviors, hallucinations, hydrophobia (fear of water), and insomnia can occur as the disease progresses. It is no wonder why rabies means madness in Latin!
There is a way to diagnose rabies using the direct fluorescent-antibody (DFA) test. This test is completed with a saliva, blood, cerebrospinal fluid, or skin sample. Even though we can get tested there is no exact treatment for rabies after the symptoms appear. The most important thing we can do is prevention. If you get bit by an animal that may have rabies, you need to see a healthcare provider ASAP. They can start the rabies vaccine protocol and give you something called rabies immunoglobulin as a mechanism to help decrease the likelihood of the rabies traveling to your brain and causing mental dysfunction or death. The general public does not need to be vaccinated against rabies, but the CDC recommends certain, high-risk people, like laboratory workers, animal control professionals, and veterinarians to be vaccinated.
Prevention is not only important in humans. It is equally important in animals.. If you have pets, there are things you can do to help them from contracting the virus. The most important thing is to keep their rabies vaccination up to date. Keeping your pets inside or close by when outside can help. Regardless of what we do, it is important to remember to seek medical help immediately after the exposure – and most definitely before the symptoms start.
Jessenia Sanchez, LPN recently graduated from College of Eastern Idaho with her LPN in 2019. She currently works at Health West Pediatrics clinic.