Crazy-looking sock bunny

A crazy bunny. Rabbits can get rabies too.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Weird Fact: According to the CDC, in the United States, more cats than dogs were reported with rabies between 2000 and 2004. Did you know rabbits can get rabies too? That one’s rare, but if you’re outside, and out of nowhere a rabbit attacks, just know it could be a rabid rabbit.

Rabies is a virus spread through saliva that affects the brain and is a death sentence. I can count on my hands the worldwide total number to ever survive without getting the vaccine. The latest survival was a girl scratched by a feral cat. Somehow the saliva got into the wound.

Fortunately, though, the rabies vaccine works well. It’s a series of shots you get after being bitten by an animal that prompt your body to produce antibodies to kill the virus. Without these immunizations giving your immune system a head start, it becomes overwhelmed by the rapidly multiplying virus.

Still, there are a few things you can do to decrease your odds of coming down with rabies in the first place.

Animals to Avoid

Raccoon, the most-common carrier of rabies in the U.S.

Cute little raccoons are the most-common carriers of rabies in the United States. And they don't always seem sick.

Before dogs were routinely vaccinated, they used to be the most common rabies carriers. They still are in most parts of the world, but, in the U.S., it’s raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes, in that order. Here’s a list of animals that can get rabies, and what you should do if one bites you or if you come in contact with the saliva in any way.

The CDC recommends getting the rabies shots as soon as possible but considers it “urgent” and not an “emergency.” To me, that means, if there’s a disaster, don’t risk life and limb to get immediate help. But you must try to get the shots started within a day—three tops.

There’s been no known human-to-human transmission except through corneal and organ transplants. In a few rare cases, no one knew the donor had died of rabies—certainly a sign that rabies may be underdiagnosed as a cause of death.

What to Do Until You Can Get the Rabies Vaccine

No matter the setting, it’s important that you wash the bite wounds quickly and thoroughly. Of course, this decreases your risk for bacterial infection, but it’s also your best bet of cleaning away as much of the rabies virus as possible. The less of the virus there is on the wound, the better chance your body has of producing enough antibodies to kill what remains before it causes the disease.

  1. Wash the wound with soap and water.
  2. Use a little pressure from a faucet, plastic bag, or syringe to squirt the water deep into the wound. I have a video on this. The irrigation begins around the 1:40 time.
  3. Next, wash the wound with povidine-iodine solution. If that’s not available, use alcohol.
  4. Unless the wound is gaping open, don’t close it. Keep it open, and clean it once or twice a day. That rule goes for all bites and puncture wounds.
  5. If it gets red or warm or has any other sign of bacterial infection, start antibiotics.
  6. Hopefully you’re up-to-date on your tetanus shot. The booster lasts 10 years.

Special Rabies Situations

Some rabid animals look sick; others are aggressive—the bite is unprovoked. That’s not the case for rabid raccoons. Many people have been bitten by a seemingly healthy, docile raccoon that only bit after the person tried to capture or kill it, and the raccoon turned out to have rabies.

Bats have sharp, tiny teeth. You can be bitten by a bat without knowing it or even seeing a wound. If you come into physical contact with a bat, or if you, say, find a bat in your room and can’t guarantee the bat hasn’t bitten you because you’ve been asleep, you must get rabies shots. People have developed rabies in both of these scenarios.

Spelunkers are some of the rare people advised to get a set of pre-exposure rabies vaccines. They’ve been known to get rabies after being in bat-filled caves (we’re talking thousands), even with no direct contact. Rabies is not carried in feces or urine, so it’s hypothesized the cavers got it from the dense saliva carried in the air.

The Rabies Shots

One other thing. There used to be horror stories of how painful rabies shots were. I read that now, that’s not the case.

Has anyone had the shots? Anyone have experience with rabies? Questions?

“Bad Bunneh” sock-bunny photo by The Bunny Maker on Flickr. “So Hungry” raccoon photo by Powerkey on Flickr.