10 Facts about Rabies

This fatal viral disease is still a threat to animals and humans

As much as we wish it to be so, this fatal viral disease is not a thing of the past. Every few minutes, someone in the world dies from rabies. Learn 10 facts about rabies here.

  • 01 of 10

    Rabies is a Bullet-Shapped Virus

    Conceptual image of rabies virus
    Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

    The microscopic shape of this virus is important for two reasons, even if only to serve as a mnemonic (memory aid) about the deadliness of this pathogen.

    Rabies, with rare exception, is usually fatal.

    This virus travels from the bite wound location along the peripheral nerves to the brain. The animal does not appear sick during this time, called the incubation period. Once the virus reaches the brain, the animal quickly becomes symptomatic and dies fairly quickly after that, usually within 7 days or less.

    More about the rabies virus traveling through the body from the CDC.

  • 02 of 10

    Rabies is Transmitted Primarily by Saliva

    Dog bite wound on the forearm of a woman
    Dog bite wound on the forearm of a woman. DR P. MARAZZI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

    Bite wounds are the mode of transmission for the vast majority of rabies infections. Once the rabies virus reaches the brain, it also replicates in the salivary glands, making transmission easy and possible. Transmission may occur through other routes too, but this is a much more rare occurrence.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): "Transmission has been rarely documented via other routes such as contamination of mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, nose, mouth), aerosol transmission, and corneal and organ transplantations." Source

  • 03 of 10

    Rabid Animals May Appear Tame

    Squirrel Eating From A Persons Hand
    Squirrel Eating From A Persons Hand

    The public image of rabies is that of a "wild" or "ferocious" animal, as depicted in the classic movie, Old Yeller.

    While this manifestation of rabies is possible, many animals appear tame, also known as the "dumb" or "paralytic" form of rabies. This may be even more dangerous, as people attempt to care for animals, especially wildlife, who are tamer-than-usual or appear helpless.

    Animals found as strays and later found to be rabid, potentially expose many people to this disease.

  • 04 of 10

    Sometimes You Don't Know You Have Been Bitten

    Baby Yuma Bat
    Baby Yuma Bat. " Baby Yuma Bat" ( CC BY 2.0) by jamesbadger

    Bats are a common reservoir for rabies in the US. They sneak in homes and are small enough to hide in beds and other common areas in the house, avoiding detection. Other times, a family pet may bring in a sick bat or a person may be bit attempting to get a bat out of the house. Sometimes the person is sleeping, unaware of a bite.

    According to the CDC, about 6% of bats are rabid. Further, "there are usually only one or two human cases per year. But the most common source of human rabies in the United States is from bats."

    Caution and "bat-proofing" your home and other buildings ​are recommended.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    90% of Rabies Cases in the US are from Wildlife

    Boy feeding a vixen, Red Fox
    Boy feeding a vixen, Red Fox. Michaela Walch / Getty Images

    Given that the majority of dogs and cats in the US are vaccinated pets, this is not a surprise. The CDC reports: "More than 90% of all animal rabies cases reported to CDC each year occur in wild animals. The main animals that get rabies include raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes."

    The big danger, aside from obviously aggressive wildlife, are baby animals or adults who appear sick, helpless, or tame. Capturing and trying to rescue or rehabilitate them could mean unnecessary exposure to rabies. If you find wildlife that fits these descriptions, it is best to call local animal control authorities to assist.

  • 06 of 10

    In Developing Countries, Most Cases are from Rabid Dog Bites

    Chinese Cities Intensify Dog Control
    NANJING, CHINA - A sign reading 'No Entry For Dogs' is seen outside the Confucius Temple on January 10, 2007 in Nanjing of Jiangsu Province, China. The city launched a campaign to remove stray dogs from its streets. According to state media, China intensified dog control as rabies cases increased in 2006. Rabies killed more people in China than either tuberculosis or AIDS in each of the preceding seven months, the Health Ministry said, prompting a crackdown in the capital and several provinces to control unregistered dogs. In the first nine months of 2006, the health ministry recorded 2,254 rabies infections in people, up 26.69 percent on the same period in 2005. China Photos / Stringer / Getty Images News

    Dogs in developing countries, both wild and those kept as pets, are a large reservoir of rabies and a potential source of human infection. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dogs "are the source of infection in all of the estimated 50 000 human rabies deaths annually in Asia and Africa."

    Millions of dogs are killed each year in countries where this is a problem to help stop the spread of rabies. This is often accomplished by cruel and inhumane methods and does little to fix the larger problem of rabies.

    Cathy King Ph.D. DVM, founder of World Vets, an organization to help both animals and people around the world, initially founded her mission to help these dogs and their people. Watch this TEDx talk to hear what Dr. King and World Vets are doing around the world and in the US: Saving man's best friend: Dr. Cathy King at TEDxFargo.

  • 07 of 10

    15 Million People Worldwide Receive Post-Exposure Shots Each Year

    Syringe being filled
    TEK IMAGE / Getty Images

    (Source: World Health Organization (WHO)

    Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP for short, is what happens if you have been bitten by, or exposed to, a rabid animal. Or, in some cases, a suspected rabid animal, if definitive testing is not available.

    The PEP for rabies is thorough wound care and a 4-dose vaccination schedule as outlined by the CDC. (PDF) Some cases warrant administration of rabies immunoglobulin. (WHO Rabies fact sheet)

  • 08 of 10

    55,000 People Worldwide Die From Rabies Each Year

    Volunteers Work To Save Stray Dogs In Bali
    Veterinarians inject rabies vaccine into a puppy at Bali Welfare Animal Association (BAWA) clinic in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Sayoga / Contributor / Getty Images News

    (Source: CDC)

    Or, to put it another way, approximately one human death from rabies occurs every 10 minutes. Most deaths are reported from Africa and Asia with almost 50% of the victims being children under the age of 15. (Source: CDC World Rabies Day)

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    There are Three Phases of Clinical Rabies

    Prodromal period - first 1 to 3 days after the rabies virus reaches the brain. Vague neurologic signs that progress rapidly - Some animals may appear ​tame, some will drool more. Death usually follows within 10 days due to paralysis.

    Excitative stage - next 2 to 3 days. This is the "furious rabies" stage - tame animals suddenly become vicious, attacking humans and other animals as they roam and wander. Some animals will chew and eat odd objects (rocks, sticks, etc.). Paralysis is setting in, and losing the ability to swallow will cause frothing at the mouth.

    Paralytic stage - follows excitative stage, or is the main clinical presentation for some animals.

    Learn More: Rabies Q & A

  • 10 of 10

    Rabies is (Nearly) Always Fatal

    Rabies is diagnosed by examining brain tissue from the deceased patient. There is no way to diagnose rabies definitively before death.

    There is no cure for rabies. The success of post-exposure protocols varies with the location of the wound, time lapse from exposure to vaccination, and age and general health of the patient.

    Vaccinating for rabies is the best (and only) way at this time to prevent this deadly disease. Animals (dogs, cats, livestock) and humans who work in high-risk jobs for rabies exposure should be vaccinated for rabies. In the US, laws vary by state and municipality, but rabies vaccination is required by law for dogs and cats.