8 Things You Might Not Know About Rabies

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
An illustration of the rabies virus
UW Medicine / Mark Kim

Let’s say you wake up with a bat in your bedroom, flying innocently in circles above your bed. You don’t believe in vampires ... should you shrug this off?  Absolutely not. Bats won’t suck your blood, but they can spread the rabies virus by something as seemingly innocent as licking you while you sleep.  

Most importantly: Don’t try to handle the situation yourself. Your local health department and animal control or wildlife rescuers are the ones trained to handle situations like these, especially when it’s likely the animal might have rabies. 

Wondering what a rabies infection looks like and how to prevent contracting rabies yourself? We have the answers.  

How can you tell if an animal has rabies? 

A spokesperson for Seattle & King County Public Health says it’s best to avoid all contact with wildlife — especially bats — and unfamiliar dogs and cats to best protect yourself from rabies. Animals with rabies typically behave strangely and may look sick, but sometimes an animal can still spread the virus before it looks sick. Bats are especially tough to assess and should always be considered to have rabies — that's why you should never touch a bat. The best way to protect yourself from rabies is to stay a safe distance from wildlife and animals you don’t know.  

How big is the rabies threat in Washington?  

Bats are currently the only known source of rabies in Washington state. If you see bats with unusual behaviors (e.g., they can’t fly or they’re flying during the daytime, making a lot of noise or otherwise acting sick), they’re more likely to have rabies. 

While most bats aren’t infected with rabies, anyone who has had contact with an infected bat or its saliva is at risk for getting rabies. Keeping your windows screened can help prevent them from accidentally flying into your home — but if they do, don’t try to capture them, instead just let them fly out the way they came in. However, there is a catch: If you wake up to find a bat in your bedroom, you should be seen by a doctor the next day, to assess whether you need post-exposure prevention via a vaccination series and immune globulin.  

Although there have been no reported cases of rabies in land-dwelling animals — such as skunks and raccoons — that could change. Other animals that can carry rabies include foxes and coyotes. The virus is typically transmitted from bats to these animals. 

How can someone get rabies? 

Many of us imagine the Hollywood-style snarling bite of Cujo when it comes to rabies transmission. While animals do often infect a person by biting them, it’s also possible (though rare) for people to get rabies from non-bite exposures, such as scratches, abrasions or open wounds that are exposed to the saliva of a rabid animal.  

While most adults can control their impulse to help (or pet) an animal they don’t know, your kids might not do the same.  

“One thing to emphasize, especially with young children, who are so curious and love the natural world, they might have an eagerness to touch an animal,” says Dr. Paul Pottinger, physician and director of the Infectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center - Montlake. “We should teach our kids to leave any wild animal alone and not to touch it, and that if they do, they won’t be punished, but that they need to tell their parents so that their parents can act on that and get them in with their pediatrician.”  

What should you do if you have a rabies exposure? 

If you have a rabies exposure, don’t panic.  

First, it’s essential to wash the bite, scratch or contact area with soap and water for at least ten minutes. 

“With a bite or scratch, see a medical professional as soon as possible, even if it’s not convenient, certainly within a day. The good news is we have excellent prevention tools, but it is best to use them right away,” says Pottinger. 

After exposure, your local public health department or doctor might say you need rabies postexposure prophylaxis (PEP).  

Your PEP regimen will consist of one dose of immune globulin and four doses of the rabies vaccine over a 14-day period. 

Seattle & King County Public Health has a telephone line that can give advice to people who can’t get in to see their doctor, and the phone line can also give advice to doctors themselves who might want guidance on what to do next for their patient.

If you think your pet was exposed to rabies, call your veterinarian. 

What are the symptoms of rabies? 

At first, symptoms of rabies in humans could be pretty similar to the flu. You might experience weakness or discomfort, a headache or a fever. Your scratch or bite might also feel itchy. As symptoms progress, you could feel anxious or confused, and even hallucinate. Know that once you notice symptoms, there isn’t yet a cure — so make sure you head to the doctor right after your exposure. 

Is rabies fatal? 

If you have a rabies exposure and delay going to the doctor for treatment, then begin showing symptoms, it’s nearly always fatal, says Seattle & King County Public Health.  

Don’t let this alarm you — if you’re treated for rabies within a few days of your exposure, before you notice any symptoms, the vaccine will prevent rabies from incubating and spreading in your body.  

But once you’re showing symptoms, there’s no specific treatment for the virus. That’s not to scare you,  but let it be a reminder to stay far away from sick animals and to get medical help right after your bite or scratch to prevent you from developing the infection. 

Should you get a vaccine for rabies?

Because most people are at low risk of encountering the rabies virus, rabies vaccinations are only recommended as part of the PEP treatment after exposure to an animal that might have rabies. 

If you have a job where you work directly with animals that could have rabies, or if you frequently travel to parts of the world where rabies is more common (and access to medical care is more difficult), you should get vaccinated for rabies. 

Most importantly, keep your pets — dogs, cats and ferrets, specifically — up to date on their rabies vaccinations. This helps keep our pet population rabies-free. 

Plus, if you’re in Washington, keeping your pets up to date on their rabies vaccines is a legal requirement for owning a dog, cat or ferret. 

For those who are hesitant to vaccinate their pets, Seattle & King County Public Health says that keeping your pets vaccinated for serious diseases like rabies is crucial for your pet’s well-being and health and for the health of our community. 

Rabies vaccines for pets are safe and effective, with many vet clinics working to make them affordable to the whole community. Rabies still causes many deaths worldwide, both in people and animals, and vaccinating your pet for rabies helps keep rabies out of dog and cat populations — and keeps people safe. 

Are there any misconceptions about rabies transmission?

While bats are the only known source of rabies in Washington, the vast majority of bats don’t even have rabies. 

“We need bats! They’re very important to our environment, disperse fruit seeds, pollinate plants and eat tons of insects,” says Kaila Lafferty, a communication specialist at Seattle & King County Public Health. “Bat droppings are an excellent natural fertilizer, providing nutrients for many living things.” 

So, don’t always blame the bats — and make sure to vaccinate your dogs.  

What should I do on my next hike?

There are only a few takeaways to remember when dealing with rabies: 

  • If you have a pet, make sure they’ve received their rabies vaccine. After that, you can take them on all your forest walks (and feel good knowing you’ve met the legal requirements to own your pet). 
  • If you see a sick animal when you’re out in the wild, leave it alone. While it might be tempting to run to the animal’s rescue, if the animal turns out to be rabid, all it takes is one bite to send you running to the doctor. 
  • Your local public health department is there for you — make sure to reach out to them if you see a rabid animal or have had any exposure to the disease.  

You — and your pets — don’t want to get rabies. So don’t touch the sick animal (and don’t always blame the bats).