What is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) that can potentially infect all mammals and is almost always fatal once symptoms begin to appear.
What animals get rabies?
Rabies can only be contracted by mammals (warm blooded animals that nurse their young). Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish cannot get rabies. The most common carriers of rabies in Iowa are bats, skunks, and cats (particularly feral or “outside” cats that have not been vaccinated). Some mammals are less likely to carry the virus, including squirrels, mice, rabbits, and opossums. Even though these species are less likely to have rabies, it is still possible for them to contract and spread the virus.
The Transmission of Rabies
A rabid animal’s saliva, brain tissue, and spinal cord tissue are infected with the virus and is transmitted when the virus gets through a person’s or animal’s skin, eyes, nose, or mouth and into their bloodstream. It is not transmitted through the urine, feces, blood, or skunk spray. Transmission most often occurs through a bite from an infected animal, but can also occur if a person (or animal) comes into contact with infected neural tissues. Depending on the proximity of the wound to the spinal cord and brain, it can take anywhere from days to months for symptoms to appear. Once symptoms appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies in Humans
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
“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. Disease prevention includes administration of both passive antibody, through an injection of human immune globulin and a round of injections with rabies vaccine. Once a person begins to exhibit signs of the disease, survival is rare. To date less than 10 documented cases of human survival from clinical rabies have been reported and only two have not had a history of pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis.”
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies in Animals
A variety of symptoms may appear in both wild and domestic animals that could potentially indicate rabies. Infected animals may be unnaturally fearful, aggressive, and may excessively drool and appear uncoordinated. Some animals exhibit a fear of water. Other behaviors unnatural to the specific species may also indicate rabies and may be taken on a case-by-case basis.
What should I do if I’m bitten by an animal that might have rabies?
Immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water in a thorough and vigorous manner. If possible, capture or contain the animal that has bitten you. Contact a medical professional and immediately report the bite to animal control or the local authorities. Your doctor will help you decide your next steps of treatment, which may include post-exposure vaccinations. Post-exposure prophylaxis consists of four doses of vaccine given over a 2 week period (usually in the upper arm), and one dose of human rabies immune globulin given on the first day and injected at the site of the wound.
Rabies and Bats
Because Iowa bats are very small and have small teeth, it can be hard to locate a bite. If you are unsure if you have been bitten, or if a bat has been found in the room of your child, contain the animal (if possible to do so safely) and seek medical advice. Do not kill the bat if possible, as the brain must remain intact for proper rabies testing. Contact animal control or the police department to report the incident. Do not assume that not being able to find a bite means you have not been exposed.
Testing an Animal for Rabies
Any animal, wild or domestic, exhibiting signs of rabies or at high risk for rabies infection must be euthanized with the brain intact. A sample of brain tissue will be analyzed for infection. If you need to have an animal euthanized and tested, contact animal control, a veterinarian, or see the resources listed below for proper procedure. Both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa have rabies testing facilities.
What is the risk of rabies in Iowa?
Pre-exposure vaccination programs, city pet licensure, and timely treatment have greatly reduced the risk of rabies in both pets and humans. The most recent human rabies case occurred in 2002, which was the first case in Iowa since 1951. In the last decade, most cases of rabies in Iowa have been found in bats and skunks. For further information and statistics regarding rabies in Iowa, please consult the Iowa Department of Public Health’s 2016 Rabies Summary, located HERE
What You Can Do To Prevent the Spread of Rabies
The best way to help prevent the spread of the rabies virus is to keep your pets up to date on their vaccines. Rabies vaccinations are required for all dogs over the age of 6 months by Iowa law, and both cats and dogs over the age of 6 months are required by West Des Moines City ordinance to have up-to-date rabies vaccinations. Along with keeping your pets vaccinated, do not let your animals run at large, or roam outside freely. Outdoor cats are especially at risk due to their frequent contact with wildlife. Do not handle or disturb wildlife, and call animal control to assist with any wildlife issues, including those suspected of having rabies.
For further information, please consult with your healthcare provider or view the following resources:
 Rabies, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Sept. 2017, www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html.
 “2016 Iowa Rabies Summary.” Iowa Department of Public Health, 27 Jan. 2017. https://idph.iowa.gov/Portals/1/userfiles/79/Reports/Misc/Rabies/2016%20Annual%20Rabies%20Report%20-%20revised.pdf