Rabies: General Information

​Rabies is a fatal disease caused by a virus. All warm-blooded animals are susceptible. The disease is usually spread when an infected animal bites another animal or person. The bitten animal or person will not become infected, however, unless the saliva of the sick animal contains the rabies virus at the time of the bite.

Any possible exposure of people or domestic animals to a wild animal should be reported immediately. View the Prince William Health District web page on animal bites and rabies for more information on how to report such exposure.

The bat, skunk and fox are the most commonly infected wild animals. Dogs and cats are the most commonly infected domestic animals. Because the signs of rabies vary, diagnosis is very difficult while the animal is alive. The only positive diagnosis is by laboratory examination of certain tissues.

Early in the disease, affected animals may show a slight change in behavior or temperament. As the disease progresses, the animal becomes restless and excitable, and may have a tendency to roam or eat unusual objects. The animal then may have trouble swallowing and may begin to drool excessively. Frequently the animal becomes vicious. Convulsions may occur and are usually fatal.

Some animals do not die in convulsions, but instead suffer paralysis of the lower jaw. Shortly after this, the paralysis spreads over the body and death occurs. This is called "dumb" rabies.

If a domesticated dog or cat bites a person, the animal should be quarantined for 10 days. If the animal develops signs of rabies or dies, tissues must be sent to a laboratory for examination.

Since rabies is such a threat to people and other animals, affected animals are not treated. Euthanasia is mandatory.

Vaccination is the best means of rabies control. All pets should be vaccinated. Consult your veterinarian regarding the proper vaccination procedure for your pet, and be sure it is kept current.

Wild animals should not be kept as pets, nor vaccinated for rabies. There is no approved rabies vaccine available for wild animals.