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Rabies is a disease of the brain and spinal cord and is caused by a virus. Rabies is a fatal disease. Rabies in humans is very rare in the U.S., but rabies in certain animals - especially wildlife - is common in many parts of the country, including Massachusetts.
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The rabies virus lives in the saliva (spit) and nervous tissues of infected animals and is spread when they bite or scratch. The virus may also be spread if saliva from an infected animal touches broken skin, open wounds, or the lining of the mouth, nose, or eyes. In caves crowded with many bats, it may be possible to inhale the virus floating on bat saliva in the air.
The rabies virus can infect any mammal (if it has hair or fur, it is a mammal), but is more common among certain ones like bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Cats, dogs, and livestock can also get rabies - and spread it to their owners - if they do not have special shots to protect them. Rabies is very rare among small rodents like squirrels, rats, mice, and chipmunks. Fish, reptiles (such as snakes, turtles, and lizards), amphibians (such as frogs and salamanders), and insects (bugs) cannot get or spread rabies.
Hundreds of animals are found to have rabies each year in Massachusetts. Wild animals most commonly found to be rabid include raccoons, skunks, bats, woodchucks, and foxes. Over one hundred cats have tested positive for rabies in Massachusetts.
Rabid animals often behave strangely after the virus attacks their brains. Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no reason, or they may lose their fear of people and seem to be unnaturally friendly. Not all rabid animals act in these ways, however, so you should avoid all wild animals - especially bats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Also, you should not feed or touch stray cats and dogs.
If you have been bitten or scratched by a stray or wild animal, or by a pet or farm animal that has been behaving oddly, follow these steps:
The treatment for people exposed to rabies involves two medications. One, called rabies immune globulin (or RIG), contains antibodies to fight the virus and is given once. The other medication is the rabies vaccine, which ensures long-lasting protection, and is given as five shots over the course of a month. (Rabies shots are no longer given in the stomach.) People who received the full series of rabies shots in the past need only two rabies vaccine shots. To work best, the medications should begin as soon as possible after the bite or scratch. However, if the animal has been caught and will be tested for rabies, you can wait for the test results to see if the shots are necessary.
Contact your doctor, nurse, health center, or your local Public Health Division Office at 508 862-4644 for more information.
Massachusetts Department of Public Health(MDPH), Division of Epidemiology and ImmunizationPhone: 617-983- 6800Toll-free:1-888-658-2850MDPH Epidemiology page