Raccoons and rabies, the basics copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen.
All rights reserved.

Recent findings of raccoons carrying the rabies virus in New York County parks
have raised questions about both the seriousness of the virus and the animals that
can carry this disease. Rabies is a virus that can affect any mammal, including
humans. This disease affects the central nervous system and if left untreated is fatal.

Rabies is usually linked with dogs and humans. According to the World Health
Organization in 1992 rabid dogs accounted for 90% of all human infections.
Currently, in Asia and South America dogs carrying the virus remain the main
source of transmission to human beings. Red foxes had been a vector in parts of
Europe although the disease has now been mostly eradicated. Infected bats in Latin
America primarily pass the disease to cattle but can also transmit the disease to
human beings.

A 2007 article in a leading veterinary journal reported that rabies control programs
in the United States had virtually eliminated the circulation of major strains of
canine rabies by the late 1960’s. Canine rabies did re-emerge in the 1980’s in Texas
(where coyotes have historically carried rabies) but was successfully eliminated. No
incidents of animals infected with canine rabies have been reported since 2004.

In many developed countries including the US, the vast majority of rabies cases are
attributed to wild animals not companion animals. Wildlife that can carry the
rabies virus includes raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.

Rabies in raccoons was first identified in the southeastern US in the 1950’s. The
disease was introduced to raccoons in the Mid-Atlantic States in the 1970’s by
the translocation of infected raccoons from the southeast by hunters seeking to
replenish depleted raccoon populations. The first case of raccoon rabies was
reported in 1999 in Ontario, Canada. It is believed that rabid raccoons from New
York State transmitted the disease.

New York City first identified a case of raccoon rabies in 1992. NYC Health Depart-
ment records indicate that rabid raccoons were identified in Manhattan in 1993
and not seen again until 2009. (Six rabid raccoons have been further identified as
of 1/14/2010 and the health department is currently planning a rabies vaccination
program to address the issue.) New York State last conducted a rabies vaccination
program on the Queens/Nassau border in 2005.

The progression of rabies in an infected animal is usually classified in three stages
or forms (an animal may have some, all or none of these symptoms): The first is
the “prodromal” or early stage with few early symptoms of the disease, the next
is the “furious” stage which is characterized by unusual agitation, puzzled and
anxious facial expression, aggression, dilated pupils, difficulty swallowing, voice
changes in pitch and hoarseness, difficulty in movement, convulsions and paralysis
(Infected cats will frequently exhibit this form and to demonstrate more aggressive
behavior  than dogs.).

The last stage or form is the “dumb” stage including sluggishness, tremors,
excessive salivation, paralyzed hind quarters and coma. Dogs are more commonly
known to have all three stages.

Symptoms of rabies vary greatly depending on the species (although the most
common indicator across species is some type of paralysis preceding death). It is
essential to point out that the above list does not include all symptoms. It is also
important to note that other diseases affecting the central nervous system may
have identical or similar symptoms. In fact signs of certain diseases such as canine
distemper are virtually identical to those of rabies.

Some animals infected with the virus may exhibit no symptoms of the disease.
Once an animal is infected with the disease there is an incubation period where the
virus passes from the site of the infection to the brain. Once the virus reaches the
brain it will begin to shed in the saliva and can be transmitted. Death soon follows
shortly in the infected animal.

Research on raccoons and rabies is continuing but it is not as extensive as the work
done with companion animals. Researchers believe that the incubation period for
rabies may be longer in wild animals infected with the disease.

There does appear to be a general consensus concerning the absence of aggressive
behavior in raccoons affected with the rabies virus. Among the articles supporting
this; one published in 1970 noted: “the typically unaggressive behavior of rabid
raccoons”, another in 1992 indicated: “Few rabid raccoons are aggressive; indeed,
most lose their natural fear of humans.”  Other studies outlining unusual behavior
in rabid raccoons note “acting “drunk” or “strange” or appearing during the
daytime as the most frequent behaviors not aggression. Where aggressive behavior
is mentioned it is usually in concert with an interaction with a dog with no mention
being made if the dog menaced the raccoon initially.

It is because of the absence of aggressive behavior in raccoons that any encounter
with these animals be conducted at a safe and respectful distance. Similarly any
behavior a raccoon may demonstrate may not indicate rabies, for instance, a
raccoon appearing during daylight hours may simply be a mother raccoon in
search of provisions for her young.

Caution should be exercised in the case of any possible transmission. Although,
exposure to rabies can be treated in human beings, the best possible way to avoid
contact with the disease and to respect wildlife at the same time is to avoid
interaction. Keep companion animal vaccinated, in your home and on a leash
when outdoors. And allow urban wildlife to be wild.

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Rabies was not found in raccoons in the Northeast until people brought rabid raccoons to the area
"It is because of the absence of
aggressive behavior in raccoons
that any encounter with these
respectful distance. Similarly
any behavior a raccoon may
demonstrate may not indicate
rabies, for instance, a raccoon
appearing during daylight hours
may simply be a mother raccoon
in search of provisions for her
Infected raccoons avoid humans and all wildlife should not be interacted with by humans
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