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Rabies virus


Tell me more about rabies.

Rabies is a virus normally found in wild and domestic animals that can infect humans if they are bitten or come in contact with an infected animal's saliva. The virus attacks the brain and nervous system and, without treatment following an animal bite, is almost uniformly fatal- only one person has survived after becoming symptomatic. While the rabies vaccine is not regularly given to the general public, it is available for people's use after an exposure.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, and hence causes neurologic symptoms. At first, the symptoms are fairly non-specific and can include fever, headache, and body aches. As time progresses, the symptoms turn more severe and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). The virus causes encephalopathy (swelling of the brain), and ultimately coma and death. Contrary to popular belief, not all animals (people included!) foam at the mouth when visibly ill with rabies.

How is rabies transmitted?

Rabies is transmitted from the bite of an infected animal that has rabies in their saliva. While many times a person is aware they have been bitten, the teeth of bats are very small and sharp, and may cause a bite without leaving a mark. Rabies can also be transmitted through direct contact with saliva and other body fluids in the absence of a bite.

Since 1960s, rabies has shifted from a disease of domestic animals to a disease of wild animals. However, since most people in the US have more contact with domestic animals, most doses of the rabies vaccine are given out after bites from domestic animals.

What species of mammals carry the rabies virus?

While any species of mammal can be infected with rabies, only a few species are responsible for maintaining the virus in nature. In Michigan, these species are:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Ferrets
  • Raccoons
  • Bats
  • Woodchucks

In other parts of the country, skunks, coyotes, and foxes are an important part of the rabies transmission cycle, but are not typically found in Michigan.

What are the treatments for rabies?

If you believe you have been exposed to an animal that carries (or may carry) the rabies virus, call the Monroe County Health Department for instructions on what, if any, post exposure treatment you will require. If possible, trap or contain the animal in question, without touching it, so it can be euthanized and tested for rabies.

If you are advised to seek rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), you will receive five doses of the rabies vaccine over a 28-day period. You will also receive Human Rabies Immune Globulin (HRIG) on the first day of your shot, which will help your body fight off any virus until it can produce its own antibodies. It is important to get vaccinated as soon as possible- no person has developed rabies if they are vaccinated with the full series in an appropriate amount of time.

Once a person develops symptoms of rabies, the disease is uniformly fatal. There was a recent exception this past fall of a person who survived rabies disease after doctors chemically induced a coma and gave the patient large doses of an antiviral drug. Because of this, it is extremely important that you seek proper medical care even on suspicion of an animal exposure.

How can I prevent rabies?

  • Avoid unfamiliar animals. Even if an animal looks okay, it may be infected with rabies and capable of giving it to you through a bite. Teach your child to "Love your own, but leave the rest alone."
  • Don't handle wild animals, either carcasses or by bringing them into your home as pets or to nurse them.
  • Make sure your pet's vaccinations are up to date. Keep your pets indoor and attended as much as possible.
  • Have your pets spayed or neutered to reduce the creation of unwanted, uncared for animals.

CDC Info on rabies:


CDC Info on rabies for kids: