Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
 

Animal Bites and Rabies

Animal Bites and Rabies

What are the dangers of animal bites?

Animal bites and scratches, even when they are minor, can become infected and spread bacteria to other parts of the body. Whether the bite is from a family pet or an animal in the wild, scratches and bites can carry disease. Cat scratches, for example, even from a kitten can carry "cat scratch disease," a bacterial infection. Other animals can transmit rabies and tetanus. Bites that break the skin are even more likely to become infected.

What is the care for animal bites?

For superficial bites from a familiar household pet who is immunized and in good health:

For deeper bites or puncture wounds from any animal, or for any bite from a strange animal:

Call your doctor or other health care provider for any flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, headache, malaise, decreased appetite, or swollen glands following an animal bite.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection of certain warm-blooded animals 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.

In North America, rabies occurs primarily in skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats. In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., 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.

Travelers to developing countries, where vaccination of domestic animals is not routine, should talk with their health care provider about getting the rabies vaccine before traveling.

How does rabies occur?

The rabies virus enters the body through a cut or scratch, or through mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and eyes), and travels to the central nervous system. Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in different organs.

The salivary glands are most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The incubation in humans from the time of exposure to the onset of illness can range anywhere from five days to more than a year, although the average incubation period is about two months. The following are the most common symptoms of rabies. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

Rabies: Stage 1

Rabies: Stage 2

  • Initial period of vague symptoms, lasting two to 10 days
  • Vague symptoms may include, fever, headache, malaise, decreased appetite, vomiting
  • Pain, itching or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound
  • Patients often develop difficulty in swallowing (sometimes referred to as "foaming at the mouth") due to the inability to swallow saliva--even the sight of water may terrify the patient
  • Some patients become agitated and disoriented, while others become paralyzed
  • Immediate death, or coma resulting in death from other complications, may result

The symptoms of rabies may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is rabies diagnosed?

In animals, the direct fluorescent antibody test (dFA) performed on brain tissue is most frequently used to detect rabies. Within a few hours, diagnostic laboratories can determine whether an animal is rabid and provide this information to medical professionals. These results may save a person from undergoing treatment if the animal is not rabid.

In humans, a number of tests are necessary to confirm or rule out rabies, as no single test can be used to rule out the disease with certainty. Tests are performed on samples of serum, saliva, and spinal fluid. Skin biopsies may also be taken from the nape of the neck.

What is the treatment for rabies?

Unfortunately, there is no known, effective treatment for rabies once symptoms of the disease occur. However, there are effective new vaccines (HDCV, PCEC) that provide immunity to rabies when administered soon after an exposure. It may also be used for protection before an exposure occurs, for persons such as veterinarians and animal handlers.

How can animal bites and rabies be prevented?

Being safe around animals, even your own pets, can help reduce the risk of animal bites. Some general guidelines for avoiding animal bites and rabies include the following:

What would my health care provider need to know about an animal bite?

If you or someone you know is bitten by an animal, remember these facts to report to your health care provider:

Click here to view the
Online Resources of Non-Traumatic Emergencies

 

Top of Page return to top of page