Rabies is a viral infection of certain warm-blooded animals (such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats) and is caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. It attacks the nervous system and, once symptoms develop, it is 100 percent fatal in animals, if left untreated.

  • An animal that is infected is referred to as rabid.
  • You can get it by being bitten or scratched by a rabid animal.
  • Cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid.
  • There is no known treatment for rabies once symptoms of the disease occur.
  • There is an effective vaccine given immediately after you've been bitten or scratched that stops the disease from developing.

Is rabies common?

In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the United States, cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. Individual states maintain information about animals that may carry rabies. It is best to check for region specific information if you are unsure about a specific animal and have been bitten.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

It may take anywhere from five days to a year to get sick after being exposed to rabies, though the average is about two months. While symptoms may vary child-to-child, the most common include (in two stages):

Stage 1 (lasts two to 10 days):

  • fever
  • headache
  • not feeling well
  • decreased appetite
  • vomiting
  • pain, itching, or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound may occur

Stage 2:

  • difficulty in swallowing (sometimes referred to as "foaming at the mouth" due to the inability to swallow saliva)
  • agitation and disorientation
  • paralysis
  • may result in immediate death or coma resulting in death from other complications

What causes rabies?

When an infected (also known as rabid) animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of infected animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

Can you prevent rabies?

The best way to prevent rabies is to be safe around animals to avoid getting bitten. This includes your own pets, since they can also get infected if bitten by an infected wild animal. Some general rules include:

  • keep pets in a fenced yard or on a leash when out in public
  • select family pets carefully
  • never leave a young child alone with a pet
  • have your pets immunized against rabies and make sure all shots are kept current
  • supervise pets so they do not come into contact with wild animals
  • call your local animal control agency to remove any stray animals
  • do not try to separate fighting animals
  • avoid any strange or sick animals
  • leave animals alone when they are eating
  • do not approach or play with wild animals of any kind

How we approach rabies

The Boston Children's Hospital Informatics Program created HealthMap, an online resource and smart phone app that helps track the spread of contagious diseases in real time, including rabies.