Rabies Information

So what’s the big deal about rabies? Certainly, human cases are few and far between in the United States. Statistically, one is much more likely to be struck by lightening than to contract rabies. Why do we in public health spend so much time and energy on a disease that so infrequently infects humans?

The answer is multi-faceted. In addition to the mandated vaccination of domestic animals (cats, dogs, and ferrets) and the development of a highly effective human vaccine, public health laws that include the reporting of all animal bites to public health authorities, play a key role in prevention. Countries without such laws continue to experience significant numbers of human fatalities due to rabies each year.

Rabies 101

The rabies virus infects only mammals and is generally spread by way of a bite wound. Tiny nerves at the “bite site” become infected and the rabies virus starts its slow journey from the far reaches of the nervous system to the brain. It can take weeks or even months for the virus to reach the brain where it causes inflammation (encephalitis).

In addition to a headache, encephalitis causes marked changes in behavior. In animals, these may include an awkward gait (“drunken raccoon syndrome”), unusual vocalizations, sleepiness, or aggressiveness. We have had reports of very “friendly” raccoons and very aggressive raccoons, both rabid. The key is the change in behavior, not necessarily the behavior itself.

Though its initial journey is slow, things speed up once the virus enters the brain, its preferred place to replicate (make copies of itself). From the brain it is a short jaunt to the salivary glands in the neck/jaw. These glands become swollen and make it difficult, even impossible, for the animal to swallow. Therefore, actively rabid animals probably will not eat or drink and their muzzles may appear wet or frothy.

Once present in the saliva, the virus can be transmitted. Excessive saliva loaded with virus and the inability to swallow coupled with deteriorating brain function make this a very dangerous time for animals or humans who may wander into the path of an actively rabid animal. Fortunately death will occur within days or even hours, once the animal exhibits severe symptoms.

What does all this mean to public health?

All animal bites whether from an owned, vaccinated pet or a wild animal are investigated. We monitor, in their home, the health of all dogs and cats for 10 days after they bite a person.  If after ten days it is still “alive and well” there is no risk that it was actively rabid and able to transmit the virus at the time of the bite.

Wild animals that have bitten a person are humanely euthanized and submitted to the New York State Lab in Albany for rabies testing. If positive, rabies vaccine is initiated. Four vaccinations are administered over the course of 14 days through one of our local emergency departments. As the vaccine takes a few days to work, it is necessary to administer immune globulin at a separate site at the time of the first vaccination. This “medication” offers immediate protection from the rabies virus. Though inconvenient, the “shots” themselves, like other routine vaccinations, are generally very well tolerated.

The rabies status of a stray or wild animal that cannot be caught and tested remains unknown. Individuals exposed to animals under these circumstances undergo vaccination.

What does this mean to you?

A healthy wild animal generally scares away easily and is neither overly friendly nor aggressive. There are some exceptions, of course. Sometimes animals simply do not want to leave the buffet. Garbage, birdseed, pet food, and small rodents in proximity to homes, barns and businesses are attractive free meals. Some animals, like fox pups we recently heard about, have become accustomed to the presence of humans and will not vacate the premises. In addition, an injured animal may have difficulty walking and may take up residence in a backyard.

Enjoy watching the animals in your community but always keep your distance. Keep pet food, birdseed and garbage in sealed containers. If an animal appears sick or wounded, leave it alone. Most all the time they wander off on their own. Report aggressive animals to Ontario County Public Health if they are preventing you from leaving your home or moving about your yard.

A small number of bats also carry the rabies virus. Possible bat exposures are handled on a very individual basis. All bat exposures should be reported to the Rabies Coordinator at Ontario County Public Health. 585-396-4343 or 1-800-299-2995.

Remember that New York State law requires the vaccination of all cats, dogs and ferrets. Owners of unvaccinated animals can be fined. In addition, if an unvaccinated pet is wounded by an animal that is not available for rabies testing, it must be confined for six months at its owner’s expense.

Ontario County Public Health offers six pet vaccination clinics each year. The yearly schedule is posted below. Protect yourself and your "best friend" from this deadly, preventable disease. For more information please go to:
For Ontario County's 2018 Rabies Clinic Schedule:

  • Clinics are FREE but donations are appreciated.
  • Cats and ferrets must be in secure containers
    • One animal per container, please
  • Dogs must be on a secure leash
  • Animals must be at least 3 months of age to be vaccinated


Because we have documented rabies in Ontario County, it is New York State law that ALL dogs, cats and ferrets in Ontario County be vaccinated against rabies.