Rabies

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Bat screeching

Rabies is a virus that mostly infects wildlife in the United States, especially bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. It can spread to people and pets when they are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal. Without treatment, rabies almost always causes death. However, rabies is 100% preventable with post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) that includes rabies vaccine and wound care to prevent infection, as long as people get PEP before symptoms start. That’s why it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider as soon as you’re bitten or scratched by an animal or if you’re unsure. Contact with bats should be carefully evaluated. Even though their bites are small and may not seem serious, you should always see a healthcare provider if you think a bat might have bitten you.

Quiz

Key Facts

  • Rabies can kill unless you receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) before you have symptoms. PEP includes rabies vaccine and medications to fight infection.
  • In the United States, the main sources of rabies are wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. Contact with infected bats is the leading cause of rabies deaths in people in the US.
  • About 55,000 Americans get post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) each year to prevent rabies infection after being bitten or scratched by an infected or suspected infected animal.
  • In the early 1900s, more than 100 people died of rabies each year in the U.S. By the 1990s, that dropped to just 1 or 2 a year.
  • Rabies in dogs is still common in many parts of the world, and the vast majority of human rabies cases worldwide come from being bitten by rabid dogs.

Media

Bats
Bats

Most of the recent human rabies cases in the United States have been caused by rabies virus that was spread by a bat. It is still rare, however, for people to get rabies from bats.

Brain cells with rabies
Brain Cells with Rabies

Rabies virus affects the nerves and brain. This shows diseased brain tissue from a rabies patient.

Girl with dog
Keep Pets Vaccinated

Making sure your pets are vaccinated is one of the best ways to prevent rabies. Unvaccinated pets can spread rabies to people if they’re bitten by rabid wild animals.

Rabies Positive Brain Smear, 400x magnification
Rabies Positive Brain Smear

In animals, rabies is diagnosed using the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test, which looks for the presence of rabies virus antigens in brain tissue.

Rabies Positive Skin Biopsy
Rabies Positive Skin Biopsy

The DFA test is based on the observation that animals infected by rabies virus have rabies virus proteins (antigen) present in their tissues.

Prevention Tips

  • Leave wildlife alone. If you see a dead animal, injured animal, or an animal that is acting strangely, do not touch it and call an animal control professional.
  • If you’re bitten or scratched by an animal, wash the wound with soap and water and call a healthcare provider to talk about whether you need post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
  • Visit your veterinarian with your pet on a regular basis. Keep rabies vaccinations up-to-date for all dogs, cats, and ferrets.
  • Keep control of your pets—cats and ferrets should be indoors, and dogs should not be allowed to run free or unsupervised.
  • Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted animals that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated regularly.
  • If you are traveling internationally, learn about rabies risks at your destination and talk to a travel medicine specialist about whether you need to be vaccinated before your trip. You can get more information on pre-travel healthcare at cdc.gov/travel.

More Information

Page last reviewed: September 15, 2022