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Rabies: Deadly, but Preventable Archived Discussion Room

Fairfax County, Virginia

Rabies: Deadly, but Preventable

On Wednesday, April 25, 1 p.m. join Director of Animal Control Michael Lucas, and Dr. Peter Troell from the Health Department, for a discussion about controlling rabies in our community and protecting yourself, your family and your pets. Each year, about 50 rabid animals are identified in Fairfax County and many more rabid animals go unreported. So far in 2012, the public has encountered 16 rabid animals. Rabies is a deadly virus that primarily infects wildlife and is most often spread through the bite of a rabid animal. In the county, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are the animals most likely to be sick with rabies. Unvaccinated pets that contact wildlife are at high risk of becoming infected. While rabies rarely causes disease in humans in the U.S., people exposed to a rabid animal can become sick, and with very rare exceptions, rabies disease is fatal. Join the online conversation, get your questions answered, and learn how to enjoy the outdoors safety this summer, and throughout the year.

Michael Lucas : Thank you for joining us today. We welcome all of your questions about the rabies virus and its presence in our community.

Tom : If I run into a rabid animal in the park, or wherever, what should I do?

Michael Lucas : If you encounter a sick or injured animal, or one that seems to be acting unusual, contact the police non emergency number at 703-691-2131 and an animal control officer will be dispatched to your location. The animal should not be approached but, if possible, keep an eye on its location to be able to share that information with the responding officer.

Donna : does the county give free rabies shots for pets?

Michael Lucas : The county does not provide free vaccinations for pets but does host low-cost rabies clinics at various sites across the county. You should visit the FCPD website for a schedule of these clinics.

Mark Pompilio : You always hear that old saying "foaming at the mouth" to describe someone "rabid" with anger. Is it true that rabies-infected animals will foam at the mouth?

Peter Troell : Foaming at the mouth is, in fact, a symptom of rabies in animals.  However, animals can present in various different ways when they have rabies. Some animals show more classic symptoms, such as foaming at the mouth, strange vocalizations, inability to drink water, and may stagger while.  Other animals with rabies appear inactive or tired, and may have paralysis of the hind legs.  Some times animals are uncharistically friendly toward humans.

Anonymous User : How do I know if an animal is rabid? To whom do I report rabid animals? Can my doctor help me if I have been bitten and think the animal might have been rabid? How soon after do I need to go?

Michael Lucas : An animal that is rabid may look injured, act aggressive or very passive and sickly. If any of these symptoms are observed you should call the police at 703-691-2131. If you have been bitten by an animal you should immediately report it to police and may need to seek medical care. If the animal is captured, tested and if found to be rabid, post-exposure rabies care should happen as soon as possible. If the animal is not captured, and it is wildlife (such as a skunk or raccoon), it will be assumed to be rabid. The risk to your health is too great and you will receive post-exposure treatment from your medical provider, or the hospital. In short, if you are bitten, call police and receive medical care as necessary. Timing is important; do not wait to call police.

Jon : How long does the vaccination need to take effect?

Peter Troell : When a person is bitten by a rabid animal, it is necessary to get rabies shots to prevent the disease from.  Rabies exposure is a medical urgency, not a medical emergency.  All bite wounds should be cleaned with soap and water and if severe, the injured person should seek medical treatment.  If the animal that bit the person is available for laboratory testing, or quarantine, it may not be necessary for the person to get the shots at all.  If needed, the shots are given and it normally takes a week or two to develop immunity.  However, the injured person will also be given rabies-immune globulin, which provides immediate protection while the person completes the series of rabies shots.  Rabies shots, if given correctly, are nearly 100% effective.

Shannon : My cat hasnt had his rabies shit this year. He goes outside; what are his chances of catching rabies. I live in a city

Michael Lucas : A valid rabies vaccination is required of all cats 4 months of age or older whether they are indoor or outdoor cats in Virginia. An animal that is currently vaccinated and is kept indoors minimizes it's chances of exposure to rabies. However, animals such as bats are a prime rabies vector and do get into homes and may exposure your indoor pet. Any potential exposure to wildlife (such as bats) should be reported to police at 703-691-2131.

Anonymous User : Is it true that bats infect humans most often with rabies? How???

Peter Troell : The majority of people in the U.S. who have gotten sick with rabies disease have most likely been exposed to a bat.  Bats are less likely than other some other animals to carry rabies.  However, exposures to bats often go unnoticed by people because bats have small teeth, bites are usually not as painful, and people are often unaware they were bitten because bites occur while they're sleeping.  Also, many people are not aware that rabies can be transmitted by bats and do not seek treatment when bitten by bats.   Having said that, only one to four people die each year from Rabies in the U.S. and the number of people who die from rabies as a result of a bat-bite is even lower.  So, the over all risk of contracting rabies from bats is low.  There's more interesting information about bats and rabies on the CDC's website: 

Anonymous User : I have lived in Fairfax County for over 20 years but had no idea that there are so many rabid animals in the County. How will I know if an animal is rabid and what should I do if I see one?

Michael Lucas : We are fortunate to have a large amount of parkland and other open spaces where wildlife make their home. Unfortunately, as the population has increased and housing is now in close proximity to these areas, there are more and more interactions between humans and wildlife. Humans and wildlife can preacefully co-exist but we urge humans not to feed wild animals nor to approach them. We encourage residents to learn more about wild animals; we have posted a great deal of information on wildlife specific to our county on the Fairfax County website under "animals." Rabid animals are a minimal number of the total number of wild animals in our county. However, if you do see one, please contact police at 703-691-2131. We typically see about 50 cases of rabid animals per year.

Anonymous User : What should the average household do to prevent exposure from wildlife with rabies?

Michael Lucas : Good question! Make sure your pets are kept current on their rabies vaccinations. Keep them on a leash; do not let them run at large. Do not feed your pets outside. Don't make your home "inviting" to wild animals; secure your trash. Recognize and report any animals you feel may be rabid.

Anonymous User : Where do I go for rabies treatment if I am bitten by an animal?

Peter Troell : Most often, people get rabies from animal bites.  However, any time saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal comes into contact with a person's eyes, nose, mouth, or open wound, it is possible for that person to get rabies.  If you think you've been exposed to rabies, you should report it to Animal Control by calling 703-691-2131 or  If you have suffered a serious bite, visit an emergency department or urgent care center for wound treatment.  If doctors determine that you require rabies shots, they are normally only available at hospital emergency departments.  If you have any questions about whether you've been exposed to rabies or whether you need treatment, you cal also contact Health Department.

Penderbrook Resident : We have a resident fox that lives on our golf course. We typically only see him/her in the early morning hours, but lately we have seen him crossing the fairways during the mid-day. He is not intimidated by the goflers, ie he could care less that they are in close proximity. The fox seems to be in good health, but we are concerned about the more frequent mid-day sightngs. Should we be concerned he is rabied and should we be calling animal control? What signs should we be watching for to determine that animal control should be contacted?

Michael Lucas : Seeing a fox during the daytime hours in Fairfax County is not that unusual. It appears that this fox has gotten used to humans being in close proximity and has adapted to humans. At the point in time the fox loses their natural fear and may begin to approach the golfers, it would be time to contact police. Foxes are naturally curious and will sometimes sit and watch you. This is normal fox behavior. We are currently in the season where their pups are being and they may be more protective if you are close to a den site. This could include areas that may seem unusual like back yards, a golf course, or even a median in a roadway.

Robbo Wen : How often does a dog need to get vaccinated for rabies?

Michael Lucas : A dog is required to be vaccinated at 4 months of age and the first vaccination is valid for one year. Subsequent vaccinations are good for 3 years. Please keep these up-to-date; it is critical.

Anonymous User : Why do I have to get my indoor cat a rabies shot? She never goes outside so there is no risk - but I still have to pay for it.

Michael Lucas : Virginia law requires all cats whether indoor or outdoor get vaccinations at 4 months of age and to keep them current. Indoor cats may still be exposed to the rabies virus through animals that enter the house. Bats frequently get inside homes (through an open door, a cracked window with a small hole in a screen, etc.) An unvaccinated, exposed cat may require up to 6 months of quarantine if bitten by a bat. So, as you now see, there is a real risk (even though it is smaller than those that go outdoors). Thank you for your question.

Preschool Aide : Hi. I am an aide at a local preschool. We back to a large wooded area and occasionally find a dead animal (fox, raccoon, squirrel). We clean them up carefully when we find them, but I am unsure how concerned we should be if one of the children finds them first and pokes at them, picks them up, etc. Is there a possibility that a child could contract rabies in this way? Thank you!

Peter Troell : The chances of a person encountering a dead animal that died of rabies is very low.  Even if someone touches a dead rabid animal, it is very unlikely that the person would develop rabies because the rabies virus dies very quickly after the animal dies.  Nevertheless, children should be taught not to play with dead animals and to tell adults about dead animals they see.  If you suspect that a person came into a contact with a dead animal that died of rabies, you can contact Animal Control who will determine whether the animal needs to be tested for rabies.  If tested, the majority the time animals test negative and not treatment will be required for people who came into contact with that animal. 

Anonymous User : I live in an urban area. How likely is it that infected animals will be found in communities versus the country?

Michael Lucas : Actually, in urban areas there can be a higher density of wildlife than in rural areas because of the habitat  because of the habitat that we have provided for them. We are testing approximately 500 animals per year that are potentially rabid and Fairfax County has one of the highest number of rabid animals in the country.

Marc : Is it true that rabid animals will run up to people and attack?

Peter Troell : Yes, rabid animals can behave aggressively.  Any time a pet or wild animal acts aggressively toward a person, it is possible the animal is rabid and you should take precautions.  Avoid the animal and call Animal Control at 703-691-2131 to report it.

Eric : My terrier chases rabbits that venture into yard. Though he hasn't gotten one yet (come close), is there a rabies danger with wild rabbits native to our area? If he ever does catch one, he's liable to get nicked with a bite.

Michael Lucas : The risk of rabies with an exposure to a rabbit is very minimal. Rabies can affect all mammals and so, therefor, a bite from a rabbit could be considered a rabies exposure. It is important that your dog stay currently vaccinated against rabies to protect it from outdoor animal exposures. I know of no rabid rabbit exposure to a pet in the 29 years I've been doing this job.

Anonymous User : When a person is bite why does it take so many shots to cure it?

Peter Troell : The current treatment for rabies includes rabies immune-globulin (which is administered right away) and 4 does of vaccine administered over a two week period.  This is done because, with rare exceptions, people with rabies die.  Over the years, the number of rabies shots required has decreased as the quality of vaccine improved.  Still, doctors believe that anything less than 4 shots does will not provide adequate protection.

Anonymous User : Do people who get rabies still have to get shots in the stomach?

Peter Troell : Today, rabies shots are no longer given in the stomach.  Rabies shots are given in the arm and are generally considered to be no more painful than any other shot. 

Amy : I have an indoor cat who is current on her shots. She sometimes gets out and encounters other cats/wild animals. If she comes home with torn skin should I take her right away to have her boosted for rabies?

Michael Lucas : It is good that you are keeping your cat current on her shots and we encourage you to keep that up. If your cat comes home injured from an unknown animal you should report it. Our animal control officers will take a report and assess the situation and whether or not any actions need to be taken.

Anonymous User : I understand that bats can carry rabies and I am concerned because I have seen bats in my neighborhood at night. Can I get rabies from these bats? My neighbor had a bat in his house a few months ago. Does he need to be concerned about getting rabies?

Michael Lucas : Bats are good! They eat mosquitos and flying insects and are important to our ecosystem. Being a mammal, a bat can be a carrier of rabies and if bitten by one, it should be immediately reported. If a bat is found in a home, you should call police who will respond and capture it. Officers will determine if there was an exposure and, if so, the animal will be tested for rabies. If not, the bat will be released.

Dorothy : If my dog has his shots up to date, and he encounters a wild animal with rabies, can he still get it? or can he still bring home the virus to my family and me?

Peter Troell : Dog that are up-to-date on their vaccines are unlikely to develop rabies even they come into contact with a rabid animal.  A pet that contacts a rabid animal is unlikely to pass the rabies virus to its owner.  Rabies is transmitted when a person is bitten by rabid animal or comes into contact with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal.  To my knowledge, no one in the U.S. has ever gotten rabies through contact with their pet immediately after that pet was exposed to a rabid animal.  (The pet would would have to first delveop rabies to pass it on to its owner.)  However, if you pet comes into contact with wildlife, please report it to Animal Control at 703-691-2131 who will determine whether your animal needs a booster vaccine. 

Anonymous User : How easy or difficult is it to contract rabies aside from getting bitten

Peter Troell : Rabies is usually transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal.  It is possible that a person could get rabies if they get saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal into their eyes, nose, mouth, or open wound; however, that very rarely occurs.

Michael Lucas : Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoy the outdoors safely and responsibly this spring and summer. Keep your pets vaccinated and enjoy wildlife from a distance.