Rabies is a viral disease that attacks a mammal’s nervous system. It’s zoonotic, which means it can be passed between different species of animals and from animals to humans. Rabies causes severe neurological and psychological issues in its host, which is presumably why rabid animals are often referred to as “mad.”

For how dangerous rabies is to humans and animals, many folks don’t know much about it. So here’s a brief primer on the virus. Read on to learn how you can spot it, how to avoid contracting it, and what to do if you think you’ve been infected.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

When people hear the word “rabies,” they tend to picture an animal foaming at the mouth and behaving erratically. While these definitely are symptoms of rabies, they’re not the only things to watch out for.

Other warning signs of rabies include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting
  • Tingling, prickling, or burning at the site of the original bite wound
  • Agitation, anxiety, and/or confusion
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Hallucinations and insomnia
  • Paralysis

How do folks contract rabies?

In the vast majority of cases, humans or animals who become infected with rabies get the disease from being bitten by an infected animal. The rabies virus lives in its host’s saliva, and puncture wounds created during a bite allow the contaminated saliva to enter the host’s muscle tissue, travel through their nervous system, and attack their brain. After an incubation period (typically 1 to 3 months, though it can be as short as a week or as long as a year), the virus moves to the host’s salivary glands, and the cycle begins anew.

Rabies is not transmittable through touch alone, and it can’t survive very long in open-air conditions. The virus can sometimes be transmitted when infected saliva or brain tissue comes in contact with another person or animal’s mucus membranes (i.e., the nose, mouth, or eyes). And human-to-human transmission usually only occurs when organs are transplanted from an infected person to a healthy one.

Can rabies be cured?

Not really, no. According to the CDC, there are only 10 recorded cases wherein a person had “full blown” rabies and they eventually recovered from it. When an animal has clinical rabies, euthanasia is usually the recommended course of action. And when a human becomes sick with rabies, there’s not much doctors can do except try to keep the patient as comfortable as possible. Although the virus has a relatively long incubation period, death usually comes 2 to 10 days after the patient starts to exhibit symptoms.

Yikes, that’s bad. Well, what precautions should I take to avoid being infected with rabies?
Good question! There are a few things that you can do to greatly reduce your risk of contracting the virus:

  • Get your pets vaccinated. Texas state law actually requires that dogs and cats be vaccinated against rabies, and the procedure must be done by a licensed veterinarian. Rabies vaccinations are also recommended for livestock, domestic ferrets, and wolf-dog hybrids. Inoculation is quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive, especially if you research low-cost shot clinics in your area! Rabies vaccines come in one-year and three-year formulas, and while Texas is one of 32 U.S. states that “accepts” the three-year version, some cities or counties still require annual vaccinations—so be sure to check your local laws.
  • Admire wildlife from afar. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible (or practical) to vaccinate every wild animal in the state against rabies. The “usual suspects” for rabies transmission are skunks, raccoons, bats, foxes, and coyotes, so if one wanders up to you while you’re out and about, do NOT try to hand-feed or touch it! Even if the animal seems friendly, they might still bite if they get startled or aggravated. And even if the animal doesn’t “seem” sick, their bite can still transmit rabies (or other diseases). Always try to keep some distance between yourself and wild animals!
  • Keep an eye out for bats. Bat bites are often tiny enough that people can be bitten in their sleep without realizing it. But bats are very capable of transmitting rabies. Thus, if you discover a bat in a room where someone has been sleeping, go ahead and assume that the person was bitten, and react accordingly (more on that in a moment!).
  • Know the symptoms. If you notice that an animal seems to be showing signs of rabies, call your local Animal Control and voice your concerns. Do not try to approach the animal yourself unless the animal in question presents a clear and immediate threat to the safety of a person or other critter. Let the professionals handle it!

A wild animal bit me, and I think I might have been exposed to rabies. What do I do now?
First of all, try not to panic. Remember that not every wild animal carries the virus, so a nip from a feral cat isn’t an automatic death sentence. In fact, actually being bitten by a rabid animal isn’t even a death sentence! While it’s true that clinical rabies (that is, a case of rabies that has progressed to the point of the victim showing symptoms) is nearly always fatal, prompt medical attention can stop the disease in its tracks. So, if you suspect that you’ve been exposed to the virus, take immediate action:

  • As soon as you can after being bitten, clean the wound with soap and water. Antiseptic soap is ideal in this situation, but if you don’t have any at your disposal, just use antibacterial soap. Scrub the affected area thoroughly and flush it with running water.
  • Ideally, the animal that delivered the bite should be captured so it can be tested for rabies. Do NOT try to catch the animal yourself unless you can do so without risking another bite! If that’s not possible, then let Animal Control handle it!
  • Seek medical attention. Unless your regular doctor can see you immediately, go to the Emergency Room at the nearest hospital. Depending on the severity of the wound and the status of the animal that bit you, the doctor may administer a rabies immunoglobulin or vaccination, just as a precaution.

Remember: once a person or animal starts to show symptoms of rabies, there’s not much anyone can do for them, and the disease will kill them within a few days. However, prompt treatment after a bite from—or exposure to—a rabid animal is almost always effective at stopping the virus in its tracks. And it’s fairly easy to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place if you take appropriate precautions.

When it comes to rabies, an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure!