What is Rabies?
Rabies is a deadly disease of animals and humans. It is endemic in New Jersey and there are over 300 cases in the state every year. Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system in mammals (warm-blooded animals). The virus is present primarily in the saliva, brain tissue, and spinal fluid of a rabid animal and is transmitted by a bite, contamination of an open cut, or through contact with mucus membranes (nose, mouth, eyes).
What Animals Can Get Rabies?
Only mammals, including humans, can get rabies. In the United States, more than 7,000 animals per year, most of them wild, have been diagnosed as having the disease since 1995. In wild animals, rabies is most common in bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes, but the disease has also been found in deer and in large rodents, such as groundhogs and woodchucks.
Cats, dogs and livestock can get rabies, too, if they are not vaccinated. In New Jersey, the vast majority of domestic animal rabies is found in cats. Small rodents (such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, and chipmunks) and lagomorphs (such as rabbits and hares) are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States.
Currently, there is no approved rabies vaccine for rabbits or small animals with the exception of ferrets. The ferret is a carnivore, which indicates a vastly different physiological system than the other animals represented. All ferrets must be vaccinated. Therefore, the only way to prevent the infection in rabbits and small animals is to prevent exposure.
What are the Symptoms of Rabies in Rabbits, Small Animals and Ferrets?
Rabbits – Although not common in domestic rabbits, they are highly susceptible to rabies virus infection. The symptoms of rabies vary depending on the species affected. The first sign of rabies is usually a change in the animal’s normal behavior. An animal need not be “foaming at the mouth” to have rabies. Some of the signs of rabies in an animal include: a general appearance of sickness, lethargy, fever, blindness, difficulty walking, abnormal salivating or slobbering, difficulty swallowing, loss of movement or partial paralysis of limbs, anxiety or irritability, aggression or other behavioral changes, dropping of the jaw or lack of mobility in the jaw (slack jaw).
- Prevention – Currently, there is no approved rabies vaccine for rabbits. The best prevention program is to prevent exposure. Rabbit owners are encouraged to provide adequate housing and fencing to prevent exposure to wild animals and potential attacks.
Small Animals – Small pet mammals such as gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs are born and raised in captivity and therefore are rarely exposed to the rabies virus.
- Prevention – Currently, there is no approved rabies vaccine for small animals. The best prevention program is to prevent exposure. Small animal owners are encouraged to provide adequate housing and fencing to prevent exposure to wild animals and potential attacks.
Ferrets – The ferret is a carnivore, but rabies is a rare disease in this species compared to dogs and, especially, cats. Ferrets have very thick, tough skin, and not all bites will penetrate, decreasing probability of the rabies virus to be transmitted from the rabid animal.
- Prevention – There is a killed virus vaccine labeled for ferrets that is given annually; recombinant vaccines have not yet been approved.
What Can You do to Protect Your Pets from Rabies?
- Small animals and rabbits should be kept indoors or kept in elevated hutches without exposed wire mesh floors.
- Do not allow pets to roam free. Small animals and rabbits should be supervised at all times when in open areas outdoors.
- Vaccinated pets serve as a buffer between rabid wildlife and humans. Consult with your veterinarian about vaccinations for your pets.
- Prevent contact with wild animals – provide adequate housing and fencing to prevent exposure to wild animals.
- Report all animal bites to the local animal control.
- If a wild animal comes on your property, contact your local animal control.
For More Information: Review the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet 1228 “Rabies: What You Should Know for Your Pets and Livestock”