Rabies

What is rabies?

Rabies is a severe viral disease that affects the central nervous system. It is almost always fatal. All warm-blooded mammals including humans are susceptible to rabies.

What mammals carry rabies?

Bats are the primary animal that carry rabies in Washington. Between 3-10% of bats submitted for testing are found to be rabid. Bats tested for rabies are more likely to test positive for rabies because they tend to be sick and injured; less than 1% of bats in the wild are infected with rabies. Rabid bats have been found in almost every county in Washington.

While rabid raccoons, skunks, foxes, or coyotes have not been identified recently in Washington, the virus can be transmitted from bats to these mammals. Visit our Rabies Activity webpage to learn more about rabid animals identified in the state.

How is rabies spread?

The rabies virus is found in the saliva and brain tissue of a rabid animal. It is usually spread to humans by animal bites. Rabies could potentially be spread if the virus comes into contact with mucous membranes (eye, nose, and respiratory tract), open cuts, or wounds. Other animal contact, such as petting a rabid animal or contact with the blood, urine, or feces of a rabid animal does not constitute an exposure. Person-to-person transmission of rabies has occurred only through tissue transplantation.

What can I do reduce the risk of rabies exposure for my family and me?

What should I do if an animal bites me?

Clean the site of any animal bite with soap and water. Contact your health care provider and local health department to determine the potential for rabies exposure, the need for treatment, and to decide whether or not to test the animal for rabies.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms normally appear two to eight weeks after exposure, but the incubation period may vary. Early symptoms include headache, fever, and sometimes pain at the site of the exposure (bite). The disease rapidly progresses into a severe nervous system (neurologic) illness. Symptoms may include agitation, confusion, paralysis, and difficulty swallowing. Most patients die within a few days or weeks of onset.

What treatment is available after exposure to rabies occurs?

Rabies in humans is 100% preventable through prompt appropriate medical care. Safe and effective treatment following potential rabies exposure should begin as soon as possible after the exposure occurs. Treatment is a series of shots. These shots, called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), include one dose of human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) and four doses of rabies vaccine given on a specific schedule over a 14-day period. People with weak immune systems will also need a fifth dose of vaccine and a blood test to check that the vaccine worked.

Treatment can be arranged through your health care provider and your local health department.

What should I do if I find a bat in my living space?

Never handle a bat with bare hands. Call your local health department so they can help you determine if the bat needs to be tested for rabies. Only capture bats that have had direct contact with a person or pet, or if the bat was found in the room of someone who may have had contact with the bat. Instructions for safely capturing bats for rabies testing (PDF). Watch Public Health-Seattle & King County's video on how to safely capture a bat in your home.

How common is human rabies and what is the source of the rabies virus?

Human rabies is an extremely rare disease in this country. Since 1990 the number of reported cases in the United States has ranged from one to seven cases annually. Almost all human rabies cases acquired in the United States since 1980 have been due to bat rabies virus. When human rabies occurs due to exposure outside of the United States it is usually the result of the bite of a rabid dog. In Washington, there have been two cases of human rabies identified during the last 25 years. In 1995, a four-year-old child died of rabies four weeks after a bat was found in her bedroom; and in 1997, a 64-year-old man was diagnosed with rabies. These two Washington residents were infected with bat rabies virus.

Has rabies occurred recently in domestic animals in Washington?

During the last 25 years, four domestic animals in Washington have been diagnosed with rabies. In 2015, a cat infected with a strain of bat virus was identified in Jefferson County. Previous identifications of animals infected with bat rabies virus include a cat in Walla Walla County in 2002 and a llama in King County in 1994. In 1992, a horse in Benton County died of an unidentified strain of rabies. The last suspected rabid dog was identified in Pierce County in 1987.

In 2007, a rabid puppy imported from another country passed through Washington on its way to another state. It was diagnosed with rabies shortly after arriving at its destination, where it is counted as an animal case for that state. Several people in Washington were exposed. Learn why you should get your pet vaccinated for rabies.

Pre-exposure Vaccination

Travelers going to an area of the world where dog rabies is common should consider pre-exposure rabies vaccinations. This is recommended if you are planning an extended trip (e.g., more than 30 days) or if your activities will take you into remote areas where medical care may be difficult to obtain in a timely manner. Contact your health care provider for more information.

Pre-exposure vaccination is also recommended for any person whose occupation involves frequent risk of rabies exposure. In Washington this includes anyone who handles bats, veterinarians, employees in veterinary clinics, and laboratory workers where rabies test specimens are handled.

Where can I get more information?

Notifiable Condition