Warning for NJ: This virus can be 100% fatal if not treated immediately
💉 Rabies spreads from infected animals to mammals only
💉 Rabies is almost always 100 percent fatal if it's not treated
💉 Human rabies cases are rare in the U.S.
Rabies is a viral disease that is spread from infected animals to other mammals. This disease is zoonotic meaning that it passes from animals to humans. It is 100 percent fatal if it’s not treated.
What animals carry rabies?
New Jersey State Public Health Veterinarian Darby McDermott said only mammals can get rabies.
In New Jersey, most rabies cases are in wildlife including raccoons, bats skunks, foxes, and groundhogs.
There are a few different rabies virus variants that are named after the main animal host that the virus is adapted to, McDermott said. In New Jersey, there are the raccoon and bat variants, and those are the species that are most impacted by rabies.
But it’s also important to note that domestic animals including pets such as dogs, cats, and ferrets can get rabies, which is why it’s so crucial to vaccinate pets and keep them up to date on their vaccinations to prevent them from getting the disease, she added.
How many animals in New Jersey carry rabies?
The New Jersey Department of Health maintains statistics on animal cases of rabies on its website. McDermott said from 2019 to 2022, there were between 194 and 257 animals that tested positive for rabies in New Jersey.
Raccoons make up the largest number of cases.
“On our New Jersey Department of Health page, we do have the statistics of animals by species and counties that tested positive for rabies in the different years,” McDermott said.
What are the symptoms of rabies?
Signs of rabies can be different based on the species, McDermott said. Some wildlife may appear healthy even if they do have rabies.
In the U.S., cases of human rabies are very rare due to the availability of an effective vaccine protocol if given promptly after exposure to a rabid animal, McDermott said.
The last time a human was infected by rabies exposure in New Jersey was in 1997, she added.
However, humans can still get rabies, and symptoms often resemble the flu. Those include fever, headache, and weakness. But then symptoms would continue to progress which can include anxiety, agitation, delirium, and other neurological signs.
“Once clinical signs of rabies do appear in people, it is almost always fatal,” McDermott said.
Signs of rabies in animals include aggression, wobbling, circling, and signs of aggression, as well as other neurologic signs, but it depends on the species. It’s important to keep a safe distance from wildlife or stray animals.
Nocturnal animals are more likely to be seen at night. But if you’re seeing them out during the day, and you’re noticing signs of illness, it most likely has rabies, she said.
“After rabies exposure in both humans and animals, the rabies virus has to travel to the brain before it can cause symptoms. So, the time between exposure and appearance of symptoms can be weeks to months,” McDermott said.
What happens if a human or animal is exposed to rabies?
If a person is bitten or scratched by an animal suspected of having rabies, he or she should wash that wound immediately with soap and water, McDermott said. Then contact the local health department to report that exposure followed by a call to their local health care provider.
If that animal is still available and still being seen, animal control in New Jersey can assist in helping to catch the animal. The local health department can also help to coordinate having that animal tested for rabies at the New Jersey State Public Health Lab, she said.
The health care provider would give the possibly infected human a series of vaccines known as “post-exposure prophylaxis”. This can prevent someone from getting rabies. McDermott said it’s very important to start this series of vaccines promptly after exposure.
Other treatment for the wound itself may also be needed.
If an animal is bitten or scratched by another animal suspected of having rabies, McDermott said it’s important to notify the local health department of that suspected rabid animal, as well as contacting a veterinarian.
The vet can provide wound care and provide a rabies booster if necessary.
Why do we need to worry about bats?
Bats is one of the two most common rabies virus variants found in the state of New Jersey, McDermott said.
While human rabies cases are rare, they are often related to a bat exposure.
“The bat bite can be so small that someone might not have felt the actual bite occur or might not see those marks,” McDermott said.
Anytime that there is direct contact with a bat, it’s important to call a healthcare provider about the risk of rabies.
Additionally, if someone is sleeping and wakes up to find a bat in the room, they should also call a doctor. It’s possible they were bitten while sleeping and may not even know it.
Bottom line: If you think you’ve been exposed to an animal with rabies, seek medical attention immediately. Keep your pets up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations. Keep a healthy distance from wildlife, especially if you see nocturnal animals wandering around in the daytime.