Rabies is caused by a virus. All mammals are susceptible to infection but the disease is generally not seen in squirrels, rodents, rabbits or hares. The virus infects the nervous system and brain, and causes symptoms in people that range from headache and tingling of the extremities, to difficulty swallowing, seizures, and death; once symptoms begin it is always fatal. Animals usually exhibit abnormal behavior and can appear especially docile or extremely aggressive. While there are several strains of the virus which are identified by the species of animal that is primarily responsible for maintaining the disease in the environment, all warm-blooded are susceptible to all of the strains.
In Arizona, there are at least three strains of rabies circulating in the environment. The ones that are most commonly identified are the big brown bat, grey fox and skunk strains. Pima, Santa Cruz, Cochise, and Coconino counties have the highest number of animals that test positive for rabies. In 2009, 280 wild and domestic animals tested positive for rabies; rabies was detected most frequently in skunks, followed by bats and foxes.
Transmission of rabies
Rabies is transmitted by a bite from an infected animal. Occasionally, the disease is transmitted when the saliva from an infected animal contaminates a break in the skin. Brain tissue may also be infective and gloves should be worn when skinning or butchering an animal. The virus enters the nerves and travels through the nerve to the brain.
Rabies can be prevented by vaccination. Pets and livestock should be vaccinated in areas where rabies occurs in the wildlife. People and pets that are exposed to a rabid animal should receive post-exposure vaccination to prevent the disease. When possible, the animal suspected to be rabid should be submitted to the Department of Health for testing; results are usually available in less than 48 hours and the vaccines are administered if the animal tests positive.
Reducing the risk of exposure
The risk of exposure to rabies can be greatly reduced by taking a few simple precautions:
- Keep all pet food, and garbage secured and away from wildlife – such available food sources increase the numbers of animals around residential areas and reduce the wild animals’ natural instinct to avoid people.
- Wild animals are best appreciated from a distance. Don’t approach animals, especially those that appear sick. A bat on the ground is usually sick and should not be picked up. If you see a sick animal in a residential area or park, call the local animal control agency.
- Keep your pets away from wild animals and keep their rabies vaccinations current.
- When camping, do not sleep out in the open or on the ground.
- When hunting, wear latex or nitrile gloves to skin and dress your harvested animal.
If you are bitten by an animal that could be rabid, immediately wash the wound with soap and water. Call the local health department and the animal control agency so the animal can be submitted for testing or quarantined. Visit your doctor or other medical provider for professional treatment.
More information on rabies
For more information on rabies, visit these Web sites:
For rabies in livestock:
Local health departments: