Rabies is a preventable viral disease that is transmitted to people and other mammals through the bite of an infected animal. Though rare, people can get rabies if a rabid animal’s saliva or nerve tissue gets directly into their eyes, nose, mouth or an open wound. Rabies affects the brain and is considered fatal.
Most rabies cases in the U.S. occur in wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. In New York, animal rabies occurs primarily in raccoons, bats and skunks. Raccoons are the most commonly reported rabid animal in NYC. Animal rabies surveillance in NYC began in 1992. Since then, more than 600 animals have tested positive for rabies in the city, the majority of which are raccoons.
No dogs have tested positive for over 60 years. The last human case of rabies in New York City was reported in 1947.
New Yorkers should avoid wild animals and vaccinate their pets against rabies.
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing disease in the brain and death. Raccoons and other animals with rabies may show some of the following symptoms:
Raccoons can also get sick from canine distemper virus. Raccoons with distemper may look like they have rabies. They can act lethargic, have a runny nose and eyes, may appear confused or disoriented or become aggressive.
You may have been exposed to rabies if you were:
Petting a rabid animal, or having contact with the blood, urine or feces of a rabid animal, is not considered an exposure.
Rabbits and small rodents — including squirrels, hamsters, mice and rats — are not normally found to be infected with rabies, nor have there been any human rabies cases associated with them. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a rabies risk, unless the animal was showing signs of rabies.
What to Do When Exposed
If you think you were exposed to rabies, follow these steps:
It can be difficult to tell if a rabies exposure occurred. You should tell your health care provider about any injury from an animal or exposure to a bat within the household.
If your health care provider thinks you may have been exposed to rabies, they will recommend a preventive treatment called postexposure prophylaxis (rPEP).
If administered appropriately after an exposure, rPEP can prevent infection.
Symptoms of rabies usually start to appear one to three months after exposure. In rare cases, symptoms have not shown up for several years.
If a healthy dog or cat has bitten you and you are able to provide the owner’s information to your health care provider or to the Health Department, the animal’s owner will be directed to watch it for 10 days at home. The Health Department will be in contact with the pet owner to see if the animal remains healthy at the end of the observation period.
If the biting animal is still alive and healthy after this period, you do not need to get a rabies vaccine. If the animal develops signs of rabies during this period, the Health Department will instruct the owner to immediately have the animal examined by a licensed veterinarian. The veterinarian will report their finding to the Health Department and a determination will be made whether rabies testing is required. In order to conduct this test, the animal must be euthanized.
If the animal is a healthy stray that is easy to identify and observe, you can try to observe it for 10 days in its home environment. Otherwise, call 311 to see if the animal can be captured and observed at a shelter.
In New York, rabies is usually transmitted to pets from raccoons. The best way to protect your pet from rabies is to get them vaccinated and keep them away from wild animals.
All dogs and cats in NYC are required to have up-to-date vaccinations against rabies. Even indoor dogs and cats are at risk if they escape outside, or if a rabid bat enters your home. Puppies and kittens should get their first rabies shot by 4 months of age. Revaccination is required no later than one year after the primary vaccination. Revaccinations must be administered at intervals thereafter.
Any dog or cat that may have been exposed to a rabid animal should be reported to the Health Department. The department will work with the pet owner and their veterinarian to determine appropriate follow up.
Dogs and cats that have never been vaccinated are required to either be euthanized or isolated for up to six months in a facility under daily veterinary observation. Dogs and cats whose rabies vaccinations are not current, and pets with bite wounds of unknown origin, will be managed on a case-by-case basis.
Dogs and cats that are currently rabies vaccinated should immediately receive a booster vaccine. They must also be confined and observed for 45 days in the owner’s home.