Ask A Scientist

What is rabies and how do animals get them?

Asked by: Maggie Novitske
School: St. James Middle School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mrs. Walter
Hobbies/Interests: Dogs, basketball, soccer, softball
Career Interest: Veterinarian

Answer from Dylan Horvath

Steward of Natural Areas, Binghamton University

Research area: Wildlife biology/ecology-wolverines, bats, salamanders and birds. Interests/hobbies: Drawing, photography singing and hiking. Web page address:  

Few diseases spark the imagination more than rabies. Dogs (and humans) with foaming mouths and violent behavior make for exciting stories. Rabies is a very real and scary disease, but a little different from what movies and fiction usually portray. Rabies is an infectious disease caused by a virus that infects only mammals. Skunks, dogs, foxes, raccoons, and bats are the most common mammals infected. The virus attacks the nervous system with early symptoms of fever, sore throat, and headaches. As the disease progresses, it eventually causes throat spasms, paralysis, coma, and death making rabies justifiably scary. The throat spasms make it difficult and painful to swallow, even water, leading a victim to seem to fear water (hydrophobia). Another symptom, salivation, combined with a dry mouth, may cause white “foam” to appear at the corners of the mouth. This is why “foaming at the mouth” is used to describe a rabid animal, but usually it isn’t as extreme as one might see in the movies and isn’t always a symptom. Since the virus attacks the brain, it can cause hallucinations and behavioral changes such as nervousness, making a person or animal more easily agitated. All these symptoms lead to the virus’ method of spreading and reproducing. Rabies is found in the saliva and is most often spread through a bite and rarely through contact (in the eyes, mouth, or a wound) with infected material. Hallucinations, pain, and agitation cause an infected animal to be more easily provoked to bite to the point at which there seems to be no provocation at all. So far, this all sounds like movies and stories are pretty accurate. But, there is a difference in reality. Rabid animals or people don’t run around trying to find victims to bite like vampires and rabies won’t create armies of marauding zombies. If a raccoon with rabies is alone in the woods, it won’t sniff out humans or other animals to attack. It may bite objects due to nervous system and brain malfunction or to offset pain. However, an infected animal may wander around and, then, become a danger if other animals or people get too close. Complicating things a bit is that rabies generally comes in two forms: “furious” rabies and “dumb” rabies. As the name implies, “furious” rabies infected mammals are more aggressive or more easily provoked to biting. The “dumb” form of rabies skips the aggressive phase to paralysis where the animal may appear timid or tame. Very few bats contract rabies, but when they do, most bat species seem to get the “dumb” form of rabies allowing human hands to grab them easily. Since all animals will likely bite in defense when in the hands of a person, handling sick bats is probably the main reason most U.S. human rabies cases in recent years are bat related. However, outside the U.S., infected domestic dogs are the main cause of human cases of rabies. Rabies is treatable if a person gets “rabies shots” ideally within 48 hours of the bite. The shots used to be a painful series injected into the stomach, but now a series of three shots in the arm usually suffice. Once the symptoms start, usually within 1-3 months, rabies is usually fatal. Rabies causes two to three human deaths in the U.S. per year (compared to tens of thousands around the world) and often death from rabies is a result of a person not seeking treatment or a child not telling their parents about being bitten. As bad as shots can seem, they are far preferable to death, and if you are bitten by a potentially rabid animal, tell someone and get treatment as quickly as possible. One hopeful prospect of rabies is that it is very preventable. Vaccinating pets has dramatically reduced domestic animals from being the primary source of human rabies infections. Even wildlife species are getting vaccinations in many states including New York. People who work with potentially rabid animals are usually required to be vaccinated as well. I have had my “rabies shots” since I research bats and may handle sick individual bats. Education and practical caution has and will reduce the threat of rabies even further. One simple method: do not approach or handle wild animals unless you have the education, experience, or most especially, the training to do so. Also, don’t approach unfamiliar dogs or pets without the owner’s permission. I am often asked whether a raccoon or fox is rabid if one is seen during the day. Just being out in the daytime doesn’t make an animal rabid, but their behavior is a better indicator. A healthy animal runs (or flies) away from people, but an easily approachable wild animal is more likely to be sick. If you encounter an animal acting weird, such as turning in circles, growling or biting at nothing, or even laying down barely moving, quietly leave and contact the proper authorities. More information on rabies can be found at the Center for Disease Control and NY DEC websites.

Last Updated: 3/1/17