What is Rabies?

Rabies is a preventable viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. If left untreated in humans and animals, rabies is fatal.

How do people get Rabies?

The virus exists in the saliva of mammals and is transmitted from animal to animal or from animal to human by biting and/or scratching. In rare instances, it can also be spread by licking, when infected saliva makes contact with open cuts or wounds, and with the mouth, eyes, and nose. Rabies has also been documented to be transmitted from human to human through organ donor transplants.

What kinds of animals carry Rabies?

While smaller wildlife (rabbits, squirrels, mice, etc) are rarely infected, there have been confirmed reports of rabid rabbits, possums, groundhogs, foxes, and squirrels. In 1988, Chester County led the nation, in positive rabies cases. Since that time, rabies has become endemic in Chester County. Numbers may appear low because the Health Department only tests animals that have had human or pet contact and have no history of a rabies vaccination. These numbers should in no way indicate that prevention measures should not still be taken to protect from rabies exposure.

What should I do if bitten or scratched by an animal?

Immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, and then seek medical attention as soon as possible. If the animal is a pet, contact the owner and find out if the animal is current on their rabies vaccination. If the animal is wild and not available for testing, it is essential to seek medical treatment quickly. Any time an animal bite occurs in Chester County, Health Department Regulations require that the bite be reported to the Health Department.

Treatment for Suspected Rabies Exposure

For information on treatment, read: Rabies treatment information from CDC

What happens if my pet is bitten by a wild animal?

If your pet is bitten or scratched by a wild animal that is not available for rabies testing, the pet is considered "exposed" and must be treated as such, according to our Regulations (see link above).

How do you know if an animal has Rabies?

The only way to confirm a diagnosis of rabies is to destroy the animal and have the brain tested by a licensed laboratory. If a healthy, currently vaccinated cat or dog bites a human, it may be captured and quarantined for 10 days. If no signs of rabies develop during the quarantine period, it is safe to assume the animal did not transmit rabies at the time of the bite. If the pet was shedding the rabies virus, it would have developed symptoms and probably have died within the 10-day period. Because the length of the infectious period in wild animals is not known, most wild animals that bite a human must be destroyed and tested.


As always in Public Health, the best and most effective method of avoiding this deadly disease is prevention – avoid exposure to wild, or strange animals and if you should come into contact with a suspicious animal, contact your physician. Below is a list of prevention measures:
  • Be sure your cats and dogs are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations. In Chester County, all cats and dogs 3 months of age or older are required by law to be vaccinated against rabies.
  • Confine your pets to your home or yard and walk them on a secured leash. Pets running at large are more likely to be exposed to rabies than those controlled by their owners.
  • Don't keep wild animals as pets. Even a baby skunk or raccoon born in captivity can be a rabies carrier. Pennsylvania law prohibits selling, trading, or bringing into the State, dangerous, wild animals for house pets.
  • Make your house and yard unattractive to wild animals. Feed pets inside the house. Keep garbage in tightly closed trash cans. Cap chimneys. Seal off any openings in attics, under porches or in basements and outbuildings.
  • Never approach or touch wild animals or unfamiliar pets. Almost any animal will attack if threatened or cornered. Avoid strange animals even if they appear friendly. Bats and raccoons are nocturnal animals, and should be avoided if seen during daylight hours. Children should be told to immediately report any contact with a wild animal to their caretaker.