Rabies Virus

Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals that affects the central nervous system causing encephalopathy leading to death. The virus is most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. There are two forms of rabies: (1) dumb rabies, in which an animal acts sick, does not eat and is lethargic and (2) furious rabies, in which an animal shows aggressive and vicious behavior.

Over the past 100 years, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of human rabies cases due to the availability of a vaccine and vigilant surveillance by public health officials. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health investigates rabies cases and may quarantine exposed animals to prevent the spread of the virus.

The vast majority of rabies cases reported each year occur in wild animals such as skunks, bats, foxes, and raccoons. In Minnesota, the skunk strain and several different strains affecting bats are most common. Domestic animals account for less than 10 percent of the reported rabies cases nationally. In Minnesota, cattle, cats, and dogs are the domestic species most often reported as rabid.

Rabies Prevention

There are many steps pet owners and livestock producers can take to decrease the risk of rabies exposure and infection to domestic animals in Minnesota.

  • Keep dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses currently rabies vaccinated
  • Vaccinate cattle and sheep if feasible
  • Keep strays and wildlife (especially skunks and bats) away from pets and livestock
  • Do not approach unfamiliar or wild animals; teach children to do the same
  • Do not keep wild animals as pets
  • Never leave children alone with any animal
  • Report stray animals or animals acting unusual to local animal control
  • Bat-proof your home
  • Do not attract wild or stray animals to your home or yard
  • Hunters and trappers should avoid animals with abnormal behavior
  • Avoid contact with dogs and cats while traveling, especially internationally

Contact the Board at 651-201-6808 for questions or concerns regarding pet and livestock exposure.

Contact the Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-5414 for questions or concerns regarding human exposure.

Bitten or Exposed Domestic Animals

Clinical signs of rabies vary depending on the species of animal affected and the strain of the virus. Most animals show behavioral changes or neurological signs. Cats often become aggressive. Cattle may bellow frequently and have trouble walking and swallowing. Dogs may show a variety of signs ranging from aggression to difficulty swallowing and paralysis.

Once a domestic animal is exposed to the rabies virus, the amount of time until clinical signs develop (the incubation period) can range from 2 to 26 weeks, depending on the location of the bite and amount of virus that enters the body. Most domestic animals show clinical signs and die within 3 to 12 weeks. To help prevent the spread of the virus and to reduce exposure to other animals, the Board places all rabies exposed domestic animals that are not currently vaccinated under quarantine for a period of 45 – 180 days.

If a pet animal bites someone, it must be confined and observed for 10 days. A domestic animal cannot transmit the rabies virus to humans or other animals until the virus is present in the saliva, which occurs at the end of the incubation period. Once the disease has progressed to this stage in domestic animals, the animal will show clinical signs of rabies infection within the 10 day observation period.

For all questions regarding pets or livestock that may have been exposed to rabies, contact the Board at 651-201-6808.

Information for Pet Owners

Although the majority of rabies cases occur in wildlife, pets and other domestic animals can be infected with rabies if they are bitten by rabid animals. Protecting your pets from rabies is extremely important, especially given the substantial amount of contact humans have with their pets.

If your pet is bitten or scratched by a wild animal, the wild animal should be submitted for rabies testing. Specimens can be submitted to the MN Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory with the assistance of your veterinarian. Please contact your veterinarian or visit www.vdl.umn.edu for specific instructions. If the wild animal is not available for testing, contact your veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health for advice.

Human Exposure to Rabies

Humans exposed to potentially rabid, test-positive, or clinically diagnosed rabid animals should contact their physician and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) for advice as soon as possible after exposure.

A pet dog, cat, or ferret that bites a human must be confined and observed for 10 days or euthanized and tested for rabies. A dog, cat, or ferret that is currently vaccinated for rabies may be confined in the home or as directed by local authorities. A dog, cat, or ferret that is not currently vaccinated for rabies may be required by local authorities to be confined at a veterinary clinic or other secure location at the owner’s expense. If the animal dies or shows signs suggestive of rabies during the ten days, it must be submitted for rabies testing.

Stray dogs, cats, or ferrets that bite a human may be confined and observed for ten days or euthanized and submitted for testing after a five-day holding period. Euthanasia and rabies testing may be performed prior to the end of the five-day holding period if requested by the MDH.

An animal other than a dog, cat, or ferret that bites a human must be managed on a case-by-case basis based on the recommendations of the MDH. The animals may be required to be confined and observed for signs suggestive of rabies. If the MDH requests a rabies test, the animal must be euthanized and tested for rabies.

Please contact local animal control or professional pest services for assistance in capturing a wild animal. Local animal control and law enforcement officials are responsible for enforcement of laws related to animal bites.

Information for Health Professionals

All positive rabies cases in Minnesota are investigated by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Acute Disease Investigation and Control Section.

Health care professionals can help prevent the spread of rabies by encouraging clients to maintain current rabies vaccinations for their pets and horses, and other types of livestock when feasible. Animal rabies vaccines may only be administered by or under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. The veterinarian that administers the vaccine must sign a rabies vaccination certificate for each dog, cat or ferret. The certificate must include the following details:

  1. Name, address, and telephone number of the owner;
  2. Pet’s name, breed, size, sex, age, species, and color;
  3. Vaccine name, manufacturer, serial number, expiration date, and duration of immunity;
  4. Rabies tag number;
  5. Date the vaccine was administered;
  6. Name, address, and license number of the veterinarian who administered or supervised the administration of the vaccine; and
  7. Due date of the next rabies vaccination.

If a domestic animal has been exposed to a wild animal, the wild animal should be euthanized and submitted to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) for rabies testing. Specimens should be hand delivered whenever possible, and should be accompanied by a rabies specimen submission form. Specific instructions for collection and submission are on the back of the form. Questions regarding submission can be directed to the VDL at 612-625-8787.