Rabies is a serious infection of the nervous system. The nervous system controls everything you do — from breathing to walking.
A person can get rabies after being bitten or scratched by an animal that carries the rabies virus. Fortunately, very few people get rabies and most cases today are found in wild animals. If someone gets bitten by an animal that has rabies, quick treatment can prevent the illness.
Rabies is very serious and can make someone very sick — the person's brain may swell and he or she could die.
That's why it's so important for someone who's been bitten by an animal to see a doctor. This is especially important if a person is bitten by a wild animal, such as a squirrel or a bat. But any mammal can get rabies, including household pets, such as dogs, cats, and even ferrets. Household pets can get a rabies vaccine to protect them and their owners. Animals who are not mammals, such as birds, fish, turtles, and snakes, cannot carry rabies.
An animal infected with rabies carries the virus in its saliva, so if it bites somebody, the virus has a way into the person's body. It's possible to get rabies from an animal scratch, too. People sometimes describe animals that have rabies as "foaming at the mouth." This happens because the animal's nerves no longer work properly and it can't swallow its own saliva.
What Should I Do If I'm Bitten?
If an animal ever bites or scratches you, tell an adult exactly what happened and ask the adult to help you take these steps to protect yourself:
- Wash the wound with soap and water for 10 minutes.
- Call your doctor or the hospital emergency department.
- Give a description of the animal that bit you to your local animal control office so they can try to find the animal and test it for rabies. Your mom or dad can help you do this.
What Will the Doctor Do?
If you go to the doctor for an animal bite, the doctor will want to know:
- What kind of animal bit you?
- How did the animal act? (Rabid animals may look and act strangely.)
- How do you feel now?
If a rabid animal bites someone, the disease will not develop right away. That's because there's an incubation period (say: in-kyuh-BAY-shun) with rabies. That means there's a period of time between getting bitten and experiencing symptoms of rabies. With rabies, the incubation period may be a few days to several weeks or even a lot longer.
But doctors don't wait around when it comes to rabies. If there's a chance the person was bitten by a rabid animal, the doctor can give the person several shots to prevent the disease. Every year, about 40,000 people in the United States get these injections as a precaution. Shots are never fun, but they're much better than getting a deadly disease.
Protect Yourself From Rabies
The best way to protect yourself from getting infected with rabies is to never approach any stray or wild animals. Don't feed them or touch them, even if they look cute and friendly. A rabid animal may sometimes look tired or sick or even very angry. That's a sure sign to stay away!
Another important step is to have your pets vaccinated (say: VAK-suh-nay-ted) by your veterinarian. The vet will give them shots so they can't catch rabies and give it to you or any other people or animals. Because of these vaccinations, almost no domesticated pets have rabies.
Also, keep outdoor trash cans carefully sealed, so they don't attract raccoons and other wild animals known to carry rabies. By closing your trash can, you'll be shutting the lid on rabies, too!
Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014