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more articles by Snedeker, Jeffrey , MD  |  author's bio

Springtime Means Rabies in New York State

Springtime Means Rabies in New York State

Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and ways to avoid rabies

By Jeffrey Snedeker, M.D.

An article in the Ithaca Journal once described two people seen playing with a raccoon in one of our state parks. They were petting and handling this wild animal, apparently unaware of the possible danger of rabies.

Anyone who is bitten, scratched, or exposed to the saliva of an animal with rabies is at risk for contracting this fatal virus. While there is a very effective vaccine for rabies, it must be administered before any symptoms of the disease appear. Once human beings develop symptoms of rabies, they face certain death.

Is rabies really a problem in New York?

Yes, rabies affects many animal populations here including raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. Vaccination of dogs and cats is our best protection against rabies and is required in New York State. There are, however, cases of rabies in other domestic animals like cows, horses, sheep, or non-immunized pets that have been bitten by a rabid wild animal.

How do I know if an animal has rabies?

Most people think that animals with rabies foam at the mouth and act aggressively; however any abnormal behavior can be a symptom. For example, a nocturnal animal that is out during the day or a wild animal that acts friendly could be rabid. Any animal that is wounded or injured should be suspect. Once symptoms develop, the animal sickens rapidly and death usually follows within days.

How long after exposure do humans develop symptoms?

Symptoms usually occur four to twelve weeks after exposure; however, people have become sick with rabies many months after exposure. Early symptoms may include pain, numbness, or tingling in the bitten area. This can be followed by confusion and agitation. Fever, headache, and more advanced symptoms like seizures, coma, and paralysis occur later, followed within days by death.

What should I do if I am exposed to rabies?

If you have been exposed to rabies, the vaccine will protect you from developing the disease. You should get vaccinated within 24 to 48 hours after exposure if possible. If you have been bitten by a wild animal, wash the wound immediately with lots of soap and running water. Then call your doctor, the emergency room, or the Tompkins County Health Department without delay. If you are uncertain about whether you were exposed, contact the Health Department for guidance. Also call the Health Department immediately for any contact with bats, even if a bat is found in the home without having definitely bitten someone.

If you see a potentially rabid animal around your house or if your pet has suffered an injury from a wild animal, don’t try to catch it. Contact a wildlife control officer or the local police to dispatch the animal. This is important because the animal may need to be submitted for rabies testing.

If your dog or cat becomes involved in a fight with a wild animal, do not break it up. Let the pet defend itself, and when the fight is over, touch your pet only if you are wearing gloves. Wash the animal with soap and water, call the Tompkins County Health Department to report the incident, and take your injured pet to the veterinarian. If you have been exposed through saliva or a bite, seek immediate medical treatment.

What is the current vaccine like?

The rabies vaccine is mild, quite safe, and has few side effects. Protection is accomplished with only five doses of the vaccine. Rabies vaccination today is not the painful ordeal it once was.

What should we tell our kids about rabies?

Teach your children about the normal behavior of wild animals, including the fact that healthy wild animals do not seek human contact. Do not feed wild animals and keep all outdoor trash cans tightly closed.

Important phone numbers

To report an animal bite, to have questions answered, or to obtain a list of wildlife control officers, call the Tompkins County Department of Environmental Health at (607) 274-6688. To report wild or unidentified animal bites on evenings or weekends, call 274-6600. To contact a local dog warden, call the SPCA at 257-1822.

Dr. Snedeker is board certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases. He is on the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and he is in practice with Northeast Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, where he can be reached at (607)257-2188.

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