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Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) that is almost always fatal. Rabies in humans is very rare in the U.S., but rabies in ground animals - especially wildlife - is common in some parts of the country. The rabies virus lives in the saliva (spit) and other body fluids of infected animals and is spread when they bite or scratch. The virus can also be spread if one of these body fluids touches broken skin or a mucous membrane (in the mouth, nose or eyes). In caves crowded with bats, it is possible to inhale the virus floating in the air.

The rabies virus can infect any mammal (if it has hair or fur, it's a mammal), but it is only 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 rodents like squirrels, rats, mice and chipmunks. Birds, fish, snakes, lizards, turtles, and insects cannot spread rabies.

Rabid animals often behave strangely after the virus attacks their brains. Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no real reason, or they may lose their fear of people and seem to be unnaturally friendly. Not all rabid animals act this way, 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.

If you have been bitten or scratched by a stray or wild animal, or by a pet or farm animal that has been behaving strangely, follow these steps:

  • Wash the wound with soap and water right away for at least five minutes.

  • Call your local board of health and your doctor, nurse or health center as soon as you finish washing. They will help you decide if you need to be treated for rabies. Follow their instructions to the letter.

  • Contact your local animal control officer to catch or find the animal that scratched or bit you. Your local board of health can tell you how to get it tested by the state rabies lab.

  • If your pet has been bitten or scratched by an animal you think might be rabid, wear gloves to touch it. Follow the steps above but call your pet's veterinarian instead of your own doctor in step 2.

People who have never received a rabies vaccine shot are given six shots over the course of a month. (Rabies shots are no longer given in the belly.) One shot is antibodies to fight the virus, and the rest are vaccine to ensure long-lasting protection. To work best, the shots should begin as soon after the bite or scratch as possible. However, if the animal has been caught and can be tested for rabies, some doctors wait for the test results to see if the shots are really needed.

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