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Rabies Awareness Week: Protect Your Family; Protect Your Pets Archived Discussion Room

Fairfax County, Virginia

Rabies Awareness Week: Protect Your Family; Protect Your Pets

On Friday, Sept. 27, 2 p.m., join Captain Dave Russell, commander of the Animal Control Unit, for a discussion on controlling rabies in our community and protecting yourself, your family and your pets. 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.

David Russell : Good afternoon, I'm Captain Russell, commander of the Animal Control Unit. I'd love to answer your questions about rabies.

Anonymous User : When my dog killed a raccoon, it had to be quarantined even though it was up to date on its shots. Does this mean that rabies vaccinations are not 100% effective? What is the typical length of time between a pet being exposed to the rabies virus and the pet showing symptoms of infection? During this period of time (incubation) can the disease be transmitted to humans or other animals? Is there a trend in Fairfax County that shows either an increase or a decrease in rabies among all species? How about among any of the individual rabies vector species? Over the last 20 years, are there any reports of opossums testing positive for rabies?

David Russell : Rabies vaccinations are not 100% effective.  For example, if the animal's immune system is compromised,  it may never respond to vaccinations.  But the main reason for boosting your dog is to heighten your animal's immune system, so that it can fight the rabies virus. 

The average length of time between exposure and a pet showing symptoms is approximately 30 days.  During the 30 day incubation time, the animal would not be infectious; however, the animal may be able to transmit rabies up to 10 days prior when the animal begins showing signs of the virus.

Rabies is endemic in Fairfax County and is not trending up or down (including any individual rabies vector species).

Fairfax County has no reported rabies cases involving opossums in the past 20 years.

Anonymous User : Are there any rabies clinics coming up?

David Russell : There are numerous rabies clinics scheduled for the remainder of the year.  The next clinic is this Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Sully District Government Center, 2-4 p.m.  The full schedule of upcoming rabies clinics is available online

Anonymous User : What's the right age to get your dog his rabies shot? If I took a dog in from a friend and don't know if he's had his shots yet, is there any harm in getting him a rabies shot-if the previous owner did get him one?

David Russell : The right age to get your dog his rabies shot is three months, it is required by four months in Virginia.  If you did not get medical records (or they are not available) proving that the dog has had his shots, you would need to get his rabies shot.  Some dogs may have a reaction to the vaccine in general.  Consulting with your vet is recommended.

Anonymous User : Is a rabid animal obvious in early stages of rabies? What do you look for? What about in humans?

David Russell :

Symptoms can be vague early on.  Some of the first symptoms you would look for of a rabid dog would be: change in tone of the dog's bark, chewing at the bite site, fever, loss of appetite, other subtle changes in behavior.  Any change in an animal’s behavior can be suggestive of rabies. These changes can include depression, hiding, partial paralysis (abnormal facial expressions, drooping head, sagging jaw, paralyzed hind limbs), episodes of extreme aggression and excitement, indiscriminate aggression, excessive drooling, and/or problems swallowing.

In humans, according to the CDC, the first symptoms of rabies may be very similar to those of the flu including general weakness or discomfort, fever, or headache. These symptoms may last for days.

There may be also discomfort or a prickling or itching sensation at the site of bite, progressing within days to symptoms of cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation. As the disease progresses, the person may experience delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and insomnia.

The acute period of disease typically ends after 2 to 10 days. Once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, and treatment is typically supportive.

Anonymous User : What if you get bit by a stray? How worried about rabies should you be? Can doctors tell or would they immediately jump to shots, etc. to protect you from rabies?

David Russell : If you are bit by a stray, the first concern would be for wound care to prevent bacterial infection.  The bite should be reported to Animal Control at 703-691-2131 immediately.  In most cases, you should not be that worried about rabies; however, follow the guidance of your doctor.

Also, in most cases, the Health Department would not recommend getting rabies shots immediately after the bite.  In Fairfax County, Animal Control is able to locate over 90% of the dogs and cats that bite humans.  If the animal is captured, Animal Control will quarantine the animal for 10 days.  As long as the dog or cat is still healthy after 10 days, then it's not possible that you were exposed to rabies.  Please keep in mind that these quarantines apply to only dogs, cats and ferrets.

Anonymous User : How many cases have been reported in the last five years?

David Russell : Approximately 40-50 animals per year test positive for rabies in the county.  The last case of human rabies in the county was in 2009, and the exposure occurred outside of the U.S.

Anonymous User : How likely is it someone would get rabies from a bat? Could you even tell you've been bitten-would be a pretty small bite.

David Russell : Approximately 97% of all bats do not carry the rabies virus; however, 90% of rabies related deaths in the U.S. are believed to be from bats. Please keep in mind that 2-3 people a year die from rabies in the U.S.  If you are alert at the time of the bite, then you would most likely feel it.

If you find a bat in your home or have direct contact with one outside, please call Animal Control at the non-emergency number 703-691-2131.

Anonymous User : If the incubation period is 30 days then why is there only a 10 day quarantine for animals when they bite someone?

David Russell : 10 day confinement periods are only done on dogs, cats or ferrets that have bitten humans.  Once the dog, cat or ferret is able to transmit the virus, it will die within eight days. 

David Russell : Thank you for joining me this afternoon to discuss rabies awareness.  More information on rabies is available online at

To report a potentially rabid animal, please call the non-emergency number at 703-691-2131.

Please keep in mind that all animal bites to humans are reportable in Fairfax County.