What you need to know about rabies
7/7/2022 by Robert M. Jacobson, M.D.
You are at risk for rabies, and once clinical symptoms appear it is virtually 100% fatal. While it cannot be treated, it can be prevented.
You need to know about rabies and what to do to reduce your risk. And you should know what you need to do if you've been exposed.
Skunks and bats are the primary wild animals in Minnesota that carry rabies. Cats, dogs, horses and cattle also can get infected when bitten by skunks or bats.
Certain animals do not carry rabies. Rabbits, mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters may bite, but they do not pose a risk for rabies.
Petting a stray cat or dog puts you at risk for rabies if you get bit — no matter how deep. Do not approach a cat or dog — no matter how cute. Do not put yourself at risk for a bite, even if the stray gets tangled up with your own pet.
If the animal that bites you can't be tested for rabies, you will need to get the rabies vaccination series. This involves rabies antibody or immunoglobulin and several doses of rabies vaccine. If the animal can be assessed and is negative, you can skip the treatment and be reassured you were not exposed. Unfortunately, capturing a stray is not easy, and the testing requires a brain sample. This requires the animal to be put to death.
Waking up in a room with a bat means you might have been bitten. Since bats have incredibly small teeth, their bites are invisible and won't wake you. You won't find a wound and won't have felt it.
If you find a child in the room with a bat, you must presume the child was bitten. It does not matter if the child was awake or asleep. The same goes for a drunk adult who was in a room with a bat. Bats, when healthy, do not stay in a room with a human. A bat in a room with a human is ill with something. And it could be rabies.
If you can't capture the bat to get the brain assessed, you need to start the rabies series.
A bite from a neighbor's cat or dog is a concern, even if your neighbor can document the pet as being up to date on rabies vaccines. The vaccine is not 100% effective. The pet still needs 10 days of observation to ensure it remains alive and healthy. If not, you will need to start the vaccination series.
If you or a loved one might have been exposed, call your care team. It's an emergency.
Robert M. Jacobson, M.D., is medical director of the Primary Care Immunization Program in Southeast Minnesota. He is a physician in Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.