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While the transmission of rabies to humans is rare in Massachusetts, the disease shouldn’t be taken lightly. More than 5,000 animals have tested positive for this extremely fatal disease in the Commonwealth since 1985, including some household pets. The Rabies Control Program from the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) offers resources to help you recognize symptoms, report possible rabies cases, and respond to exposure.

Recognizing and Reporting Rabies

Rabies may be found in a variety of animals native to the Commonwealth, including raccoons, skunks, bats, woodchucks, and foxes. These animals can infect humans and pets, so residents should understand the symptoms of rabies in Massachusetts wildlife and stay clear of possibly infected animals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some clinical signs of rabies in animals include:

  • Abnormal or aggressive behavior;
  • Lethargy, weakness, or paralysis;
  • Self-mutilation;
  • Seizures;
  • Excessive salivation; and
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing.

If you encounter wildlife that may be infected with rabies, do not approach. Keep a safe distance and report sick animals to your:

Protecting Pets from Rabies

Pet owners need to be particularly aware of rabies. Wild animals are known to expose domesticated pets to the disease during fights or other interactions. Fortunately, there are some practical solutions to protect your pets against rabies.

  • Vaccinate Pets — The rabies vaccine for dogs, cats, and ferrets is a requirement under Massachusetts law. Contact your veterinarian or a rabies clinic to ensure vaccinations are up to date. In rare cases of exposure, unvaccinated pets or other animals may have to be euthanized.
  • Keep Pets Close — Always watch pets when they are outdoors and keep them away from wildlife. Use a leash, keep pets in fenced areas, and never let them roam free.
  • Spay and Neuter — The CDC suggests spaying and neutering pets to reduce the potential for unwanted animals without vaccinations.
  • Keep Wildlife Wild — Never keep a wild animal as a pet. For the most part, it is illegal in Massachusetts.
  • Secure Property — Bring all outdoor water or food bowls inside, cover garbage, and repair holes in chimneys, cellars, porches, and other areas. This will keep wildlife away from your property and out of your home.

Dealing with Rabies Exposure

Rabies is transmitted through saliva, usually from a bite. However, exposure through open wounds, eyes, nose and the mouth is possible. The disease is nearly always fatal for both humans and animals, but because treatment in humans immediately after exposure is very effective, cases of rabies in humans are rare in the United States. Although 16,000 to 39,000 Americans receive a rabies vaccine after possible exposure each year, according to a CDC report, only a few cases of human rabies have been recorded annually in recent decades. In order to stay safe and healthy, you should follow DPH’s guidelines if you or your pet might have been exposed to the disease:

  • Humans — Wash wounds with soap and water immediately for 10 minutes and call your doctor or local board of health to determine if you should be treated. Available vaccine treatments for exposure depend on past vaccination history, according to CDC guidelines. The CDC notes that the incubation period for rabies in humans ranges from days to years, so it’s important to follow procedures, even if you don’t immediately recognize you’ve had an exposure.
    • Classify the Animal — If bitten or scratched by a wild animal, contact the local board of health or animal control officer to seek resources to locate the specific animal. If you are exposed to the disease by a cat, dog, ferret, or cow, contact the municipal animal inspector, who will monitor the animal for symptoms for 10 days. If the animal does not show symptoms after this period, you are not at risk for rabies.
    • Determine Vaccination Needs — Consult a healthcare provider or DPH to determine if you should receive a vaccine regimen. A two-dose vaccine administered over the course of three days is typical for individuals who have had previous rabies vaccines. A four-dose treatment over the course of two weeks is recommended for people who have not been vaccinated for rabies. A human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) shot is also administered at the time of the first dosage for unvaccinated persons.
  • Pets — Specific quarantine and vaccination guidelines for dogs and cats depend on whether they have been exposed to wildlife, have been exposed to other domestic animals, or have bitten humans. A pet’s vaccination history and the nature of exposure determine what procedure is followed. Confinement periods range from 10 days to six months, and various vaccination protocols are possible.

Bats and Rabies

In the United States, bats are the most common source of rabies infections in humans, according to the CDC. Take special care around these animals. Follow specific guidelines for preventing the spread of rabies by bats:

  • Err on the Side of Caution — If you are woken up by a bat or find a bat near a mentally impaired individual, an intoxicated person, or an unattended child, try to safely capture the bat and get it tested for rabies. Bats have small teeth, so it’s often difficult to notice bites.
  • Secure Your Home — Place screens on windows, cap chimneys, and close off electrical and plumbing openings to bat-proof your home. Confine major home renovations to the month of May or between August and mid-October when bats are hibernating or not raising young.
  • Remove Bats from Living Areas — Close room doors, turn on lights, and open windows to encourage the bat to exit the house only if you are certain no contact was made.

There have only been 55 cases of human rabies in the United States since 1990, according to the CDC. By learning the signs and symptoms of rabies, you can make sure you, your family, and your pets are protected.

Comments or questions? Tweet us @MassGov or comment below.

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