What is rabies?
Rabies is a disease of the brain and spinal cord and is caused by a virus.
Rabies is a fatal disease. Rabies in humans is very rare in the U.S., but
rabies in certain animals—especially wildlife—is common in many parts of the
country, including Massachusetts.
How is rabies spread?
The rabies virus lives in the saliva (spit) and nervous tissues of infected
animals and is spread when they bite or scratch. The virus may also be
spread if saliva from an infected animal touches broken skin, open wounds or
the lining of the mouth, nose, or eyes. In caves crowded with many bats, it
may be possible to inhale the virus floating on bat saliva in the air.
What kinds of animals spread rabies?
The rabies virus can infect any mammal (if it has hair or fur, it is a
mammal), but is more common among certain ones like bats, skunks, foxes, and
raccoons. Cats, dogs, and livestock can also get rabies—and spread it to
their owners—if they do not have special shots to protect them. Rabies is
very rare among small rodents like squirrels, rats, mice, and chipmunks.
Fish, reptiles (such as snakes, turtles and lizards), amphibians (such as
frogs and salamanders), and insects (bugs) cannot get or spread rabies.
How common is animal rabies in Massachusetts?
Hundreds of animals are found to have rabies each year in Massachusetts.
Wild animals most commonly found to be rabid include raccoons, skunks, bats,
woodchucks and foxes. Over one hundred cats have tested positive for rabies
How can you tell if an animal is rabid?
Rabid animals often behave strangely after the virus attacks their brains.
Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no reason, or they may
lose their fear of people and seem to be unnaturally friendly. Not all rabid
animals act in these ways, however, so you should avoid all wild animals –
especially bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Also, you should not feed or
touch stray cats and dogs.
What should you do if you think you’ve been exposed to rabies?
If you have been bitten or scratched by a stray or wild animal, or by a pet
or farm animal that has been behaving oddly, follow these steps:
1. Wash the wound with soap and water right away for at least ten minutes.
2. Call your health care provider and local board of health as soon as you
finish washing. They will help you decide if you need to be treated for
rabies. It is important to follow their instructions exactly.
3. Contact your local animal control officer (508 790-6272 or 790-6274) to
catch or find the animal that scratched or bit you. Your local board of
health can tell you how to have it tested by the State Rabies Lab, if
appropriate. If your pet has been bitten or scratched by an animal that you
think may be rabid, put on gloves before touching your pet. Follow the steps
above but call your pet’s veterinarian instead of your own doctor as in
What is the treatment for people exposed to rabies?
The treatment for people exposed to rabies involves two medications. One,
called rabies immune globulin (or RIG), contains antibodies to fight the
virus and is given once. The other medication is rabies vaccine, which
ensures long-lasting protection, and is given as five shots over the course
of a month. (Rabies shots are no longer given in the stomach.) People who
received the full series of rabies shots in the past need only two rabies
vaccine shots. To work best, the medications should begin as soon as
possible after the bite or scratch. However, if the animal has been caught
and will be tested for rabies, you can wait for the test results to see if
the shots are necessary.
How can you prevent rabies?
• Avoid wild animals, especially bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Do not
feed or pet strays. Avoid any animal—wild, farm or pet—that you do not know.
Report any animal that behaves oddly to your local animal control official.
• Teach your children to avoid wildlife, strays, and all other animals they
do not know well.
• Do not handle dead, sick, or injured wild animals yourself; call the
police or animal control officer. If you must handle the animal, use heavy
gloves, sticks or other tools to avoid direct contact.
• Make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies and that their shots are
up-to-date. By law, all dogs, cats and ferrets must be vaccinated against
• Feed pets indoors and keep them indoors at night If they are outside
during the day, keep them on a leash or fenced in so they cannot wander. It
is possible for vaccinated pets to get rabies. Pets allowed to roam freely
are more likely to get rabies and possibly expose people and other pets in
• Fasten trash can lids tightly. Garbage attracts animals (like skunks,
raccoons, and strays) looking for an easy meal.
• It is against state law to keep wild animals such as skunks or raccoons as
pets. There are no rabies vaccines for most wild species.
• Cap your chimney with screens and block openings in attics, cellars, and
porches to keep wild animals like bats and raccoons out of your home.
• If you have bats in your house, talk to a professional about bat-proofing
• Animal control officers, veterinarians, their assistants, and others who
have a lot of contact with strays or wildlife should get routine rabies
vaccinations to protect themselves before they are exposed to the virus.