Rabies: Is Your Family at Risk?

When she closed the patio door behind her, Patti Reynolds (not her real name) had no idea she’d be sitting in her local emergency room 30 minutes later.

Reynolds, the 38-year-old mother of three, watered each of her four rose bushes. As she straightened to return to the house, a black dog she had never seen before attacked her and bit her on the leg. When she screamed, the animal ran away. As she looked at the tooth marks on her leg, all she could think of was the foaming she glimpsed around the dog’s mouth. She also recalled it had no tags or collar.

A scene from a remote wooded area? Try a 10-year-old suburban development near a busy highway. Since neither police nor animal control officers were able to locate the black dog, Reynolds underwent painful injections in case the animal had been infected with rabies.

The rabies virus is found mainly in the saliva and brains of rabid animals. It’s normally transmitted through a bite or getting saliva or brain tissue in a wound. On rare occasions, it’s contracted by getting virus in the eye, mouth, or scratches. While not as talked-about as it was 30 years ago, the disease is still present and can be contracted from mammals. The most likely sources are skunks, bats, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats, and some farm animals. Rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, and small pets such as hamsters and gerbils seldom contract it.

A rabies vaccination can prevent the disease in cats, dogs, ferrets, and some livestock, For most wild and exotic animals, however, there is no vaccine. You should teach your children to enjoy all wild animals from a distance, even when they act friendly. Don’t let your pets roam free or leave pet food or unsecured garbage outside your home.

According to the Fairfax County Health Department in suburban Virginia, the best way to prevent the spread of rabies to humans is by keeping your pets’ vaccinations current.

Most recent human cases have been contracted from bats. Watch out for and caution family members to be wary of any bat active by day, discovered in an area where bats are not typically seen, or unable to fly. If you awaken to find a bat in your room or that of your child, do not attempt to destroy the bat. Instead, call your local health department of advice on how to have the bat tested and to see if anyone might need medical care.

What should you do if you or a family member is bitten? First of all, don’t panic. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and a lot of water. Use first aid measures appropriate for the type of wound.
If you can safely do so, capture the animal under a box or can. If you can’t, at least attempt to identify it before it runs away. You should not try to pick up or even touch the animal.

If the bite was caused by a wild animal that must be killed, don’t let anyone damage the head. Never allow anyone to kill wild animals at random on the off chance there might be a rabies outbreak in progress.

Notify your health care provider or go to the emergency room immediately and explain how you or any family members were bitten. If necessary, medical providers can give you the rabies treatment recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service. They will also treat you for any potential infections resulting from the bite.

If your pet has bitten someone, tell the individual to see a medical provider immediately. Report the bite to your local health department and expect your pet to be quarantined and observed closely for 10 days. After the observation period, have your pet vaccinated for rabies if it does not have a current vaccination.

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