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Rabies Risk More Common Than You Think

It’s not unusual to encounter wildlife when working in outdoor construction, particularly if the construction site or work zone is located close to natural habitats or areas that have recently been developed. Most of the time, these chance sightings are harmless, but workers should be aware that contact can be hazardous. This is particularly true if the animal exhibits behaviors that aren’t typical, such as not showing a natural fear of humans, being unusually aggressive or appearing at an unusual time of day. These behaviors can indicate the animal has rabies, even if it doesn’t appear to be sick.

Rabies can be transmitted to humansdomestic pets and livestock through a bite, scratch or by contact with saliva during handling (whether the animal is alive or dead). Without prompt medical treatment, rabies is always fatal. Rabies treatment consists of a dose of human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) and rabies vaccine administered over the course of two weeks.

In 2017, more than 4,000 cases of rabies in animals were reported to the CDC. Rabies was confirmed in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Wild animals accounted for the majority of cases, but rabies was also confirmed in cats, dogs, cattle, horses and mules.

While cases of rabies in humans are rare in the U.S. and Canada, exposure to animals that could be infected with rabies is not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2018, about 55,000 people in the U.S. received post-exposure treatment after contact with a potentially rabid animal. That’s because there is no treatment once symptoms of rabies appear, which can be anywhere from several weeks to several months following exposure. Rabies fatalities occur when people fail to seek treatment, usually because they don’t understand the risk. In 2018, one of those deaths was a six-year-old boy in Florida who was scratched by an infected bat. The child’s father washed the wound, but didn’t take him to the hospital.

What Is Rabies?

Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system and eventually reaches the brain. Only mammals can get rabies; birds, fish, turtles and lizards do not get the disease. Bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks are the main carriers of rabies in the U.S. and Canada. Small rodents and other wild animals are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to transmit the disease to humans. Most cases of rabies in domestic animals occur in cats, dogs, cattle and horses. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats are the most common domestic animal to get rabies because many owners do not vaccinate their pets and allow them to wander where they can be exposed to rabid wildlife.

What Are Signs of Rabies in Animals?

Animals with rabies can display a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Staggering and paralysis
  • Seizures

Aggressive behavior is common in rabid animals, but they can also be uncharacteristically affectionate. Depression, self-mutilation and increased sensitivity to light is common in horses and livestock. However, the only way to confirm if an animal has rabies is through testing. Domestic pets can be quarantined for 10 days to see if they get sick.

What Should You Do If You Think an Animal Has Rabies?

First, don’t touch it, and never pick up dead animals. Call the police department or animal control. If you’re bitten or scratched, wash the wound with soap and water, then immediately go to your nearest health care provider for treatment.

What Else Can You Do?

Avoiding contact with wild animals or stray cats and dogs is the best way to protect yourself from being exposed to rabies when on the job and at home. Do not feed or handle them. Keep garbage cans securely covered. If you have pets, don’t feed them outside and if you have any animals, have them vaccinated against rabies. Most states in the U.S. have laws pertaining to rabies vaccination. In Canada, Ontario is the only province with rabies legislation. Many communities offer low-cost rabies clinics. Check with your local health department for more information.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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