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Wild, domestic animals can pass on rabies whether they show symptoms or not

Dr. Katherine Feldman, the state public health veterinarian at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Dr. Katherine Feldman, the state public health veterinarian at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Public health officials often warn the public not to approach wild animals because they might be infected with rabies, whether they show obvious signs or not. Hundreds of animals a year are confirmed to have the nervous system disease, according to Dr. Katherine Feldman, state public health veterinarian at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

What is rabies?

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Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system of all mammals, including humans. Once symptoms appear, the disease is nearly always fatal. In Maryland, the most common rabid animals are wildlife species, specifically raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. Cats are the most common domestic animal diagnosed with rabies, and this year alone there have been 19 rabid cats identified in Maryland. Each year in Maryland, there are 350 to 450 confirmed rabid animals.

How do people become infected?

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The rabies virus is spread in the saliva of an infected animal, typically by a bite. Having saliva from an infected animal come in contact with eyes, nose, mouth or open wounds also may be considered an exposure to the virus. But coming into contact with blood, urine, feces or skunk spray does not constitute an exposure. Animals with rabies may spread the virus before they show signs of disease.

What is the treatment, and what happens if you are not treated?

An effective treatment called rabies post-exposure prophylaxis prevent[s] rabies in humans if given promptly after an exposure. [People should seek treatment beginning the day of exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.] And people who have frequent contact with potentially rabid animals, such as veterinarians, animal control workers and international travelers, can get vaccinated against the disease. Once symptoms of rabies appear, however, there is no effective treatment, and the disease is nearly always fatal.

Can I tell if an animal has rabies?

Animals with rabies may seem totally healthy but still might be able to spread the disease for a few days before they appear sick. Once they are sick, a rabid animal may show behavior changes. For instance, wild animals may act friendly, and domestic animals may become aggressive. Rabid animals may have excessive amounts of saliva, and they may stagger or become paralyzed.

How do you protect yourself?

The best way to protect yourself and your family — including your pets — from rabies is to vaccinate your pets. In Maryland, dogs, cats and ferrets must be vaccinated against rabies by the time they are 4 months of age. Rabies vaccines are also available for horses, cattle and sheep.

Most recent human cases of rabies in the U.S. have been caused by exposure to rabid bats. If someone finds a bat in their home and there is a possibility that the bat could have bitten them or a household member, the bat should be collected safely and tested for rabies. Sometimes, it is necessary to seek medical advice even in the absence of an obvious bite wound. The local health department in your jurisdiction can provide guidance as to whether rabies post-exposure prophylaxis is needed.

How do I capture a bat safely?

The safest way to capture a bat is to use a wildlife cooperator or trapper. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website (dnr2.maryland.gov) can help find these professionals.

Use caution if you catch the bat yourself — wear heavy gloves. Close the doors and windows so the bat cannot escape the room. Once the bat has landed, place a coffee can or box over the bat and slide a piece of cardboard under the container to trap the bat inside. Holding the cardboard firmly in place, turn the container right-side up and tape the cardboard tightly to the container. Your local health department or animal control agency can help determine if the bat should be tested for rabies.

What should I do if I have been bitten by an animal?

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Get the name and address of the animal's owner. If there is no owner, remember what the animal looked like. Immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Seek medical attention promptly and discuss with your provider whether rabies post-exposure prophylaxis should be administered. You should also report the bite to your local animal control agency, health department or police.

What do you do if you come across a sick or injured animal?

If you encounter a sick or injured dog or cat, call your local animal control agency.

If you come across sick or injured wildlife species, do not approach the animal. If the animal presents an immediate threat , call your local animal control agency or the police. Otherwise, you can call 877-463-6497 to report nuisance, injured or sick wildlife. This hotline is a joint effort of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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