Rabies in wildlife within the Quinnipiack Valley Health District (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) has re-emerged this spring, with active rabies disease showing up in a raccoon and a bat. Therefore, it is very important to keep your distance from wildlife and follow “rabies safe” rules. This will minimize your chances of needing to receive post-exposure treatment if exposed.
What is a human exposure to rabies? The rabies virus, found primarily in the animal’s saliva and brain tissue (not blood, urine or feces), can enter the human body through a bite, scratch, wound or mucus membrane (like the eyes or mouth). This would be considered an exposure. Bites are the most common means of transmission. If you are bitten by a raccoon, you would know that you had a bite. However, bat bites are very tiny and almost non-visible. The guidelines state that if you wake up with a bat in the room, or a bat is found in a room with a small child or anyone not capable of giving a reliable report, your health care provider should be consulted to decide if rabies prophylaxis (treatment) should begin. If the bat can be captured and tested, treatment may be delayed until the results are obtained.
People often ask, “What symptoms should I look for” if they have had a potential exposure to rabies. It is important to understand that rabies is almost always fatal once the disease is established within the body. However, from the time of exposure to the time of the onset of symptoms (establishment of the disease), there is a brief time period in which medical intervention (through vaccines) can prevent the development of the disease. Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for exposure to rabies consists of 5 injections: 1 immune globulin and 1 rabies vaccine on the first visit after the exposure followed by 1 rabies vaccine on days 3, 7 and 14 after the first vaccine. (Centers for Disease Control Guidelines) PEP can be started and stopped if the suspect animal is found to be negative for rabies once the test results are available. Often times, people will start the treatment before they have the lab report, rather than wait for the results. Most hospital emergency rooms have the vaccine available. Some walk-in urgent care centers may also have the vaccine. Call first to find out.
You should call the Animal Control Officer (ACO) in your town when you have a sick or injured animal on your property; your pet has tangled with an animal and has killed or maimed it; or you have a bat in your house. You should call the Health District (for your town) when you have questions about an exposure to a potentially rabid animal. However, if you are bitten by an animal, you should first seek medical care at your primary care doctor’s office or the Emergency Room. Your doctor can consult with QVHD.
Bats in a house can create difficult scenarios for assessment of human exposure. If a bat in your bedroom wakes you up, the bat should be captured for testing. Animal Control can assist with this. Do not try to touch the bat with your bare hands. Bat bites can be very tiny and may not be evident. Testing the bat for rabies will help you to decide if you need post-exposure treatment. If the bat is not available for testing, post-exposure treatment is often recommended because bat bites are difficult to find to recognize. The CDC states that post-exposure prophylaxis can be considered for persons who were in the same room as a bat and who might be unaware that a bite or direct contact had occurred and rabies cannot be ruled out by testing the bat. An example would be a sleeping person awakens to find a bat in the room or an adult witnesses a bat in the room with a previously unattended child, mentally disabled person, or intoxicated person and the bat is not available for testing.
If you have a bat in the house, it is important to try to figure out how the bat got in. They are tiny and don’t need much space to get in. Check window screens, door seals, chimney flues and around window air conditioner units. As you remove window units in preparation for the winter, you should consider wearing gloves and watch out for roosting bats under units.
Rabies Prevention Rules
- If you always use gloves when examining your pet for wounds, you will minimize your chance of exposure. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after any contact, even if you have worn gloves. If your pet is not severely injured, wait until the fur is dry to examine a wound. The rabies virus dies once dry. If your pet gets bitten or has contact with a wild animal, take your pet for a booster shot right away. If you are bitten, immediately wash and soak in soapy water for 10 minutes, then promptly seek medical attention from your doctor or an emergency room. You should never ignore an animal bite, scratch or saliva contact from a wild animal or an unknown (to you) domestic animal, especially if it seems sick.
- You can maintain a barrier between you and wildlife by vaccinating your cats and dogs (required by law) and keeping their booster shots up to date. Failure to do this can leave you exposed to rabies and if your unvaccinated pet tangles with a wildlife animal (known to be rabid or not), it will have to be removed from your home for a time period of off-site quarantine (at your expense!) or kept at home under strict quarantine procedures. Animal exposures are handled through the local Animal Control Officer in your town. The Health District consults on human exposures.
- Never touch unfamiliar or wild animals; Avoid direct contact with stray animals; Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home.
- Do not try to nurse sick animals back to health. Call your animal control officer or an animal rehabilitator. You can obtain a list of animal rehabilitators from the DEEP website. Go to http://www.ct.gov/deep. Choose “Natural Resources” then “Wildlife”, then “Nuisance/Distressed Wildlife”, last “Dealing with Distressed Wildlife” for a list of animal rehabilitators. (You can also learn how to become an animal rehabilitator.)
For more information on rabies, visit www.cdc.gov/rabies/. District residents can call QVHD, 203 248-4528 for answers to questions. Please note: QVHD does not pick up animals or assist in searching for animals.