Sunday, January 31, 2010

What to do when attacked by a rabid animal

A gray fox lies on a warm road after dark in Big Bend National Park.

Rabid fox hangs on

Recently, a woman jogger in Arizona was attacked by a rabid fox.  At first, the fox didn't appear aggressive, but as she backed away it attacked, clamping its jaws to her arm.  With the fox hanging on, she ran a mile to her car, where she succeeded in removing the fox from her arm and trapping it in the trunk of her car.  Later, the fox bit an animal control officer when he removed it from the trunk.  SourceMore detail.

I credit the woman for her coolness, and for trapping the fox (which later proved to be rabid).  I blame the animal control officer, who should have been more cautious.

The above fox story isn't all that unusual.  Rabies cases are increasing in Arizona.  Here are some similar stories:
"Man Attacked by Rabid Bobcat Strangles Animal to Death With Bare Hands"
"An Encounter With a Rabid Skunk"   This one's a real nightmare--a guy, sleeping outdoors, wakes up with a skunk biting his nose.  See the hilarious photo of his nose.

Which animals carry rabies?

Any mammal can carry the rabies virus.  In the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern US, there has been an epidemic of rabies in raccoons since the 1970s.  More recently, rabies has been common among skunks in the Midwest. 

The "reservoir" for rabies is thought to be wild bat populations, so bats are always suspect.  (This doesn't mean you kill all bats.  If one blunders into your house, open the windows; or just put on gloves, and put it outside, then wash your hands.)

The greatest risk comes from infected bats, monkeys, raccoons, foxes, skunks, cattle, wolves, coyotes, dogs, cats, or mongoose.  You can also catch rabies from infected domestic farm animals, groundhogs, weasels, bears and other wild carnivores. But rodents, such as mice and squirrels, are seldom infected.

In many parts of the world, dogs are the most common carriers.  But in the US, due to laws that require dogs to be vaccinated, dogs are seldom infected.

A person (or other animal) usually becomes infected from the bite of a rabid animal.  The virus is carried in the saliva.  But people have become infected without being bitten, so it's important to wash carefully if you have contact with a rabid animal.

How rabies is spread

After a long incubation period, rabies attacks the brain, causing the rabid animal to become excitable and aggressive--hence the tendency to attack and bite.  As the disease progresses, the animal may become partially paralyzed, uncoordinated, and may drool.

The virus actually takes over the animal's brain, directing the animal to attack and to spread the virus.  Better than science fiction.  Presumably, the virus is spread among wild populations when the excitable victims bite or lick one another.

Recognizing a rabid animal

Wild animals are nearly always extremely cautious around humans.  So when you see an animal that seems fearless, or even boldly aggressive, that's a good sign the animal has rabies.

If the animal is merely fearless, but not aggressive, back away cautiously--don't excite the animal.  But if it's approaching fast, get away as fast as you can.

For example, my friend Liz drove into a park, to go for a walk.  As soon as she got out of the car, she was approached by a raccoon.  It walked up to her fast and purposefully.  She tried to scare it away by clapping her hands, but the raccoon paid no attention.  She responded by climbing on top of her car, since there was no time to unlock.   The raccoon tried to climb after her, but the metal was too slippery.  When another car drove into the lot, the raccoon approached the driver as he got out, and he, too, climbed on top of his car.  Then he crawled back into the car through the open window (someone else inside opened it for him).  While the raccoon was occupied with the second car, Liz climbed down, drove away, and reported the raccoon.

There are three things besides rabies that could explain this raccoon's overly bold behavior:
  • It may have been hungry--and trained by previous handouts to see humans as a source of food. 
  • Or, it may have been a hand-raised pet, released back to the wild, and now very hungry.  However, in either case, the raccoon would still show caution.  It would seem to be testing an invisible barrier of fear.  If you made a sudden motion, it would probably scamper back, then cautiously approach again.  It would look very alert and hesitant.
  • Finally, it might be defending its burrow or its young.  Never mess with a mother with young.
Since raccoons are active at night, and this happened during daylight, the raccoon's behavior was especially abnormal.

Do your best to decide if the animal is rabid--or whether one of these other situations applies.  Use your head!  I don't advise being afraid of all animals that approach, because the great majority are just looking for handouts.  So there's no point in locking yourself in the car for an hour, if the animal is showing the usual, cautious behavior--and it's an area where wild animals may have been fed in the past.

Recently, a new behavior has been observed in rabid foxes.  Normally, they are extremely wary of humans.  But some rabid foxes lose their fear, come into settled areas, and approach people.  Beware of tame foxes!

However, note that wild skunks are normally somewhat tame.  That's because, with their chemical weapon, they have little to fear from predators--so they have a placid nature.

The bottom line: Don't feed wildlife, and avoid animals that appear tame.  If they are aggressive, get away as fast as possible.   But running in panic isn't advisable--like Liz, use your head (or your car).

What to do if you are bitten

If you had contact with the animal but weren't bitten (skin broken), it's still necessary to wash skin thoroughly and flush exposed mucous membranes such as eyes, nose or mouth with water.  Check with your doctor.

If the skin is broken, wash the wound as above for 5 minutes, and apply an antiseptic to the wound.(povidone-iodine, iodine tincture, aqueous iodine solution or ethanol alcohol ).

If bitten, you must see your doctor for a series of injections within 10 days of the bite.  The injections are expensive, but today no more painful than shots for the flu.  They are nearly 100% effective--but if you omit the shots and the animal was rabid, your chances of a terrible death are nearly 100%.

In the US, only 1-2 people die from rabies each year, but worldwide, about 55,000 die each year.  India is the country with the highest death toll, followed by Vietnam, then Thailand.

If a bat is found in a room with an infant, vaccination for rabies is usually indicated.  Babies have died from rabies, even though no bite could be found.

If you are bitten, don't panic.  The shots are going to be effective---you're going to be all right.  But think--how can you prevent others from being at risk from this animal?  At the minimum, report it immediately to the authorities.  If possible, trap or kill the animal.  That way, it's no longer a threat, and it can be tested for rabies.

What about dog bite?

In the US, dogs are unlikely to have rabies.  But in other parts of the world, take a dog bite very seriously!

Again, use your head.  If the dog is defending it's territory, that's probably the reason for the bite.  But if you are away from a house, and attacked suddenly by a strange dog, that's suspicious.  Look for other signs of abnormal behavior, such as un-coordination or drooling.

There are good reasons, other than rabies, to report dogs that bite.  In some areas, the owners are required by law to tie up the dog and keep it under observation, to rule out rabies.

If bitten, use common sense.  For example, if there's a good explanation for the attack, and you know the dog, and it's vaccinated against rabies, and yor can later observe it (within 10 days) to make sure it isn't sick, then shots may not be necessary.

Can I get rabies from a bird?

No, wild birds do not carry rabies.  But experimentally, birds have been given rabies.  They do not get as sick as mammals do.  Source.

Wikipedia article.   CDC info on rabies.


  1. i found this very useful because i have to do this in my boy scouts.{ethan}

  2. I found this article useful to, but what if your in the wild with no car or anything like that and you see a rabid animal?

  3. If you are away from a car when an animal approaches, keep your wits--dont' panic. Face the animal. Try to decide if it's really rabid (drooling, uncoordinated, or very aggressiv-- versus hungry, or defending its den or young). Find a weapon like a stout stick (or second best, a large rock). That should be more than a match for anything but a grizzly. Use the stick to keep an animal like a raccoon at a distance. Slowly back away from the area, in case the animal is defending its den or young.

    When a cougar grabbed an elderly man by the head and started to drag him away, his wife picked up a large branch, bashed the cougar, and saved hubby.


Comments are welcome.