Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system in mammals and is usually transmitted through saliva when an infected animal bites an uninfected animal or person. It may also be transmitted when saliva comes into contact with small cuts in the skin or mucous membranes, like the eyes or mouth. If the infected animal or person goes untreated, rabies is FATAL; however, there are effective vaccines that are available to protect people and pets.
Since 1900, Pennsylvania has maintained records of rabies cases throughout the state. Animals testing positive for rabies have been reported every year during that time. Positive cases have ranged from 902 in 1944, to 11 positives in 1964 and 1968. In 2009, a total of 388 animals were reported positive including wildlife and domestic animals. Of those positive cases, 51.3% were raccoons. Raccoons have not always been a major carrier of rabies in Pennsylvania. In the late 1970’s infected raccoons were translocated to West Virginia from the southeastern US. The first rabid raccoons appeared in Pennsylvania in 1982. By 1989 a high of 488 rabid raccoons were reported. Since that time raccoons have continued to be the most prevalent carrier of rabies. Rabies vector species are those most likely to contract the disease. In Pennsylvania these species include the following: raccoons, skunks, foxes, cats, bats, and coyotes. Even though these are the carriers of the rabies virus, any unvaccinated wild or domestic mammal can potentially contract rabies, but it rarely occurs in rabbits and small rodents (squirrels, chipmunks).
The cost of living with rabies in America is high and growing, exceeding $300 million annually. Although rabies vaccinations have been available for domestic animals for many years, until recently no such preventive measure existed to control rabies in wildlife.
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