How is rabies transmitted?
Rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact (such as through broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth) with saliva or brain/nervous system tissue from an infected animal.
People usually get rabies from the bite of a rabid animal. It is also possible, but rare, for people to get rabies from non-bite exposures, which can include scratches, abrasions, or open wounds that are exposed to saliva or other potentially infectious material from a rabid animal. Other types of contact, such as petting a rabid animal or contact with the blood, urine or feces of a rabid animal, are not associated with risk for infection and are not considered to be exposures of concern for rabies.
Other modes of transmission—aside from bites and scratches—are uncommon. Inhalation of aerosolized rabies virus is one potential non-bite route of exposure, but except for laboratory workers, most people won’t encounter an aerosol of rabies virus. Rabies transmission through corneal and solid organ transplants have been recorded, but they are also very rare. There have only been two known solid organ donor with rabies in the United States since 2008. Many organ procurement organizations have added a screening question about rabies exposure to their procedures for evaluating the suitability of each donor.
Bite and non-bite exposures from an infected person could theoretically transmit rabies, but no such cases have been documented. Casual contact, such as touching a person with rabies or contact with non-infectious fluid or tissue (urine, blood, feces), is not associated with risk for infection. Contact with someone who is receiving rabies vaccination does not constitute rabies exposure, does not pose a risk for infection, and does not require postexposure prophylaxis.
Rabies virus becomes noninfectious when it dries out and when it is exposed to sunlight. Different environmental conditions affect the rate at which the virus becomes inactive, but in general, if the material containing the virus is dry, the virus can be considered noninfectious.
All mammals can get rabies, but only a few species are important as reservoirs for the disease. In the United States, distinct strains of rabies virus have been identified in bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and mongooses. In many other parts of the world, rabies in dogs is still common.