Submitted by the Needham Public Health Department
Rabies is a very serious disease that affects the brain and spinal cord of mammals (if an animal has hair or fur, it is a mammal). Cats, dogs, raccoons, coyotes and foxes are mammals, as are people. Rabies is caused by a virus and almost always causes death. Rabies is usually a disease of animals, but it can spread from an infected animal to a person.
Bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and woodchucks are the wild animals most likely to have the disease in Massachusetts. Domestic animals such as dogs, cats, ferrets, and farm animals can get rabies from wild animals. This is why it is so important to vaccinate pets and livestock. These are the animals that people are around the most. Pets and stray dogs and cats can act like a bridge between wild animals and people, bringing rabies from wild animals into your home.
Remember: You should never take animals from the wild and bring them home to keep for pets.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a disease of animals and people. Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the brain and nerves. The virus is carried in the saliva (spit, drool) of a rabid animal. Rabies can also be spread by a scratch or if infected saliva gets into an open cut or wound or onto a mucous membrane, such as the eye, nose or throat. Once the virus is inside people, it spreads through the body and kills the victims if they are not treated quickly. The good news is that rabies in humans, pets, and livestock can be prevented by a vaccine. For people who are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal, prompt treatment will protect the person from getting rabies. Treatment usually involves five shots of safe and effective vaccine in the arm and one shot of another medicine called Human Rabies Immune Globulin (HRIG).
Prevention & Precautions
Here are some simple guidelines you and your family can follow to help prevent rabies exposures:
- Vaccinate your pets. Cats, dogs, and ferrets all need to be vaccinated by a veterinarian regularly. If you own livestock, you should make sure their vaccinations are up-to-date.
- Report bites and scratches. If you get a bite or a scratch from a dog, cat, or other domestic animal it should be reported to the Needham Health Department and Needham Animal Control officer. Get the contact information on the animal so follow up can be done to make sure everyone stays healthy. (So, when out walking or riding a bike and a bite occurs, write down the contact information on the animal and report the incident.)
- Don’t feed or water your pets outside. Even empty bowls will attract wild and stray animals.
- Do not feed or handle wild animals. Teach children that although a baby skunk, bunny or raccoon may look cute and friendly, it can be very dangerous.
- Do not feed or touch stray animals, including stray cats. Also, avoid all sick or strange-acting animals and report to animal control.
- Cover your garbage cans. And don’t leave pets’ food outside where it can attract wild animals.
- Keep your chimney capped. Repair holes in attics, cellars, and porches to help keep wild animals like bats and raccoons out of your home.
- Do not keep wild animals as pets. Not only is this dangerous for you and the animal, it’s also against the law. Remember: There is no cure for rabies. It’s not worth the risk.
- Discourage the permission of allowing animals into the classroom. You have no idea if this animal is up-to-date on their vaccines.
- Do not touch or pick up dead animals.
Leave Bats Alone
Never handle a bat, especially with bare hands. Use thick gloves, tongs or a shovel to remove a dead bat, or call in bat-removal experts. Please see this state resource for how to capture a bat properly for testing.
If you wake up with one flying above your head, you should assume that rabies exposure was possible. A bat’s bite is so small, you may not even feel it. Contact animal control to capture the bat for rabies testing and seek prompt medical attention.
Do not let your pet play with bats.
Keep bats out of the house or other buildings by closing or covering the attic or other dark sheltered areas. Put screens on the windows.
For More Information
Remember: It is better to ask a question and be safe and healthy with regards to rabies. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Needham Health Department continue to focus on educating the public to reduce the risk of rabies.
For more information on rabies, contact the Needham Public Health Department at 781-455-7523 or Needham Animal Control at 781-444-1212. Or check out the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s website.