What is Rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system that is almost always fatal once symptoms begin. The virus is transmitted through saliva or brain/nervous tissue. People and pets are usually exposed via a bite or scratch from a rabid animal. Any mammal can get rabies, but some types of animals, such as bats, skunks, coyotes, and raccoons, are known to be "reservoirs" (or carriers) of rabies.
In Washington State, bats are our only known rabies reservoir. Each year, rabid bats are found throughout the state. However, most bats in Washington and in the United States do not carry rabies. It is estimated that less than 1% of bats in the wild are infected with rabies. The vast majority (90-95%) of the bats tested for rabies in Washington, which tend to be sick or injured, are not infected. Rabid bats are found in Kitsap County in most years; nearly all other counties in the state have also identified rabid bats.
While any mammal can get rabies, the possibility of rabies in other domestic or wild animals is very unlikely in Washington. Since 1990, the only animals besides bats that have tested positive for rabies in our state include: 2 cats, 1 horse, and 1 llama. The cats and llama were infected with a type ("variant") of rabies that clearly came from bats; while the type that the horse was infected with couldn't be determined, it is presumed to be a bat-variant. In other parts of the country, the risk differs. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes are known to carry rabies in different parts of the United States. In developing countries worldwide, dogs are the principal animal in which rabies are found.
Because rabies is a life threatening disease, medical advice must be sought promptly following an animal bite or attack. Any contact with bats deserves special attention (see our Bats and Rabies page). Once symptoms of rabies begin, the disease is nearly always fatal. However, prompt preventive treatment after you've been bitten or otherwise exposed can prevent the deadly disease.
Preventing rabies exposures from occurring in the first place is the best choice. Tips on avoiding exposures include:
- Avoid contact with bats and never touch a bat with bare hands.
- Teach children never to handle or touch bats, and to tell an adult if they see a bat.
- Keep bats out of your house by "bat-proofing" your home.
- Enjoy wildlife from a safe distance; do not approach or attempt to feed or touch them.
- Do not attempt to pick up a sick or injured bat or other animal.
- Vaccinate your pets.
For more information on rabies: