Taking a bite out of rabies: What you should know

In Maryland, the majority of rabies cases are found in raccoons, but bats, foxes and skunks also have a high incidence of rabies.

Two incidents occurred recently onboard NAS Patuxent River involving dogs fighting with a groundhog that tested positive for rabies, prompting this reminder of what to do to help prevent coming in contact with the disease, and what to expect with post-exposure treatment.

“We had a family dog at the Gold Coast get in a fight with a groundhog and then another neighbor’s dog later killed what we think was the same groundhog,” said Lance McDaniel, Pax River Environmental Division director. “We took the carcass to the county and they tested it positive for rabies.”

Contracting rabies

Rabies, a viral disease that infects the brain in humans and other mammals, is spread via the saliva when an animal in the transmissible stage bites another animal or human. While a bite is the most common method of spreading the disease, it is possible to contract rabies simply by coming in contact with an infected animal’s saliva.

“The virus lives in nervous system tissue, then causes a progressive infection of the brain,” said Naval Health Clinic Patuxent River’s Dr. Patricia Bray, occupational physician and acting Chair for the Rabies Control Advisory Board. “As symptoms progress, one effect is more saliva production. Think of the classic image of a rabid animal behaving strangely, aggressively, and drooling a lot. Should a pet get into a fight with an infected animal, there tends to be a lot of saliva from the rabid animal. When owners comfort an injured pet, saliva from the rabid animal that remains on the pet may enter someone’s eye, nose, or mouth and travel to the nervous system. If you handle an animal that has been attacked, you need to wear gloves. If you come in contact with saliva from a potentially rabid animal, you should seek care at the nearest hospital.”

Post-exposure treatment

Rabies is nearly 100% fatal once symptoms start, so seeking treatment after an incident is paramount.

Bray recommends anyone involved in a rabies incident should wash themselves thoroughly with soap, running water and disinfectant, then immediately go to an Emergency Department.

“Doctors will cleanse with a disinfecting agent that kills viruses,” Bray said. “They inject rabies immune globulin, or RIG, around the wound as a one-time immediate dose. It’s a neutralizing antibody to counteract the virus until the exposed person can respond to the vaccine by producing their own antibodies.”

Bray added that in addition to the RIG for patients not previously vaccinated, all patients are given the rabies vaccine injection — the first dose in a multiple-dose series — administered on day zero, day three, day seven and day 14. Individuals with an immune-compromising medical condition will also receive a fifth dose. The Naval Health Clinic does not have RIG, so cannot provide full initial treatment. Pax clinic beneficiaries who started treatment at a hospital may receive subsequent vaccine doses at the clinic. Clinic staff are available to take reports of animal bites and answer questions at 301-342-1418.

Bitten family pets need immediate treatment also. Rabies can lie dormant for extended periods, and by the time symptoms begin to show, it is too late for treatment and death is expected. According to Maryland law, even vaccinated animals must get one post-exposure vaccine dose, so owners need to contact their veterinarian as well.

Reporting wild animals,

avoiding contact

One of the easiest ways to avoid a potential rabies incident is by avoiding contact with wild animals.

Pax River Conservation Director and wildlife specialist Kyle Rambo explained that certain animal species are more prone to carry rabies than others.

“In Maryland, the majority of rabies cases are found in raccoons, but bats, foxes, and skunks also have a high incidence of rabies,” he said.

In fact, Bray noted, a person can be bitten by a bat and not even realize it.

“If someone wakes up in a room and a bat is flying around, that’s enough to recommend the [rabies vaccine] because bats’ teeth and bite wounds are tiny. People may not know they or their child were bitten,” she said.

Maryland State Law states an “individual who knows of an animal that has rabies or is suspected of having rabies, or of an animal that has had a bite from — or non-bite contact with — an animal known or suspected of having rabies shall report the facts immediately” to the local animal control authority.

Outside the gates, if you see an animal you feel is an imminent human health threat, call St. Mary’s County Animal Control at 301-475-8018. If bitten or scratched by any animal, call St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Department at 301-475-8008.

“If you’re on base and see a suspicious animal, call dispatch any time at 301-342-3208,” Rambo said. “If it’s during the day, our natural resources personnel can also respond; we’re all trained in how to handle it. If it’s just a nuisance animal living under or near a building or trailer, tell your building’s facilities coordinator who knows how to put in a service ticket to have the animal removed.”

Rambo encourages people to keep their family pets contained as much for their own safety as the humans around them, and warns people not to touch or handle any wild animal, no matter how cute. Just as important, people should not feed wild animals anytime, anywhere — whether intentionally or not.

“Never leave pet food outside in a bowl and make sure your garbage cans are secure so you don’t draw animals in close where they’ll get used to encountering humans,” he added. “And don’t toss food scraps to wild animals you see on base, which encourages contact and draws them in closer to hangars and buildings. That includes feeding the feral cat population that exists here because those animals get in fights with other wild animals and are at risk to develop and transmit rabies.”

Pax River personnel are warned to never to feed or release stray cats or other animals on station, and not to interfere with live traps or other control measures implemented aboard Pax. Doing so could result in disciplinary action administered by the NAS command.