Rabies is a neurotropic rhabdovirus that can affect any warm-blooded animal. This means that the virus has an affinity for nervous tissue, this includes nerves, spinal cord, and brain. There are 3 main carriers of rabies in the United States, bats, raccoons, and foxes. Mongoose is the main carrier of rabies in Puerto Rico. The predominant wildlife host on the east coast, including Florida, is the raccoon.
Rabies is transmitted from the saliva of an infected animal to an exposed host. This usually takes place as a bite, but the virus can be transmitted from a scratch, if there is saliva on the nails of the infected animal. Rabies can be transmitted from aerosol exposure. This is especially important with spelunkers (cave explorers) who enter caves where there is a large population of bats. The virus can be inhaled through the mucous membranes by a susceptible host.
Early clinical signs of rabies include fever, muscle aches, anxiety, and progress to hallucinations, deliria, seizures, muscle twitching, change in behavior, aggression (madness), and hydrophobia (fear of water). The incubation period is dependent on where the entry point of the virus. The virus travels up the nerves, to the spinal cord, then enters the brain. The closer to the head the person or pet is exposed, the shorter the incubation period. Death without treatment is almost a certainty within 2-10 days after exposure.
Transmission of rabies occurs via the saliva. The animal is capable of transmitting rabies when the virus migrates from the brain to the salivary glands. When a domestic animal with an unknown vaccination history bites a person, they are quarantined for 10 days. The animal can only transmit the virus when it is in the salivary gland and studies have shown that if they were infective at the time of the bite, they will be dead within 10 days. The bitten person then is subjected to rabies post-exposure treatment. This treatment involves 5 painful injections and is very expensive, but without treatment, death is almost a certainty. There have been only a few cases of people surviving rabies without post-exposure treatment.
All pets should be vaccinated for rabies and kept inside. Cats are more likely to contract rabies and more likely to transmit the disease because they are more predatory by nature and become much more aggressive when they develop rabies. The vaccination is inexpensive, safe and very effective.