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Rabies in Alabama Wildlife


Wildlife and the Outdoors



Rabies in Alabama Wildlife Populations

By Keith McCutcheon, Supervising Wildlife Biologist


The word “rabies” strikes fear into humans when they hear of it, and for good reason. Once exposed, contracted, and left untreated, humans and animals suffer almost a 100 percent mortality rate to rabies, stressing to people the need for a better understanding of the causes and control measures related to this deadly disease. All cases of rabies are caused by a virus, which is almost always transmitted by the bite of an infected animal or by the exposure of open wounds to the saliva of an animal previously infected.

All mammals are susceptible to rabies, but birds, fish, and other wildlife are not. Mammal species in Alabama that are considered high risk for contracting rabies are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks and bats. Domestic animals and humans may at times be exposed to these wildlife species, therefore caution is always advised in their presence. Wild mammals should never be kept or handled by the public. The rabies virus will probably always be with us, as long as there are numbers of wild animals in the world, meaning that prevention and control are our best methods of defense.

Rabies in animals may be seen (or classified) in two forms, which are furious rabies and dumb rabies, both of which have the same deadly results. Furious rabies is the form most depicted by the media and better known by the public. It is characterized by vicious attacks by the infected animal on itself or anything around it. However, the other form, known as dumb rabies, could actually be more dangerous to unsuspecting humans, simply because the animal encountered appears only sick, lame, or disoriented, rather than appearing vicious. Therefore, a well intending, yet ill-informed person attempting to save or help a sick raccoon could be committing a grave mistake by handling the animal. Wild animals should be left alone by people, period.

Since the incubation period (time of exposure till contraction) for rabies varies in time for different wild mammals, quarantine periods are not valid for diagnosing rabies presence in wild animals. Therefore, if exposure is known, or if rabies is suspected in a wild animal, the suspect animal should be dispatched (without damage to the brain if possible), placed in two plastic bags, and submitted immediately to the nearest diagnostic laboratory. Questions regarding human rabies vaccinations should be directed to a physician.

A decreasing fur market and subsequent decrease in fur trapping effort has apparently coincided with large increases in the numbers of raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and other fur bearing species in the past two decades. This increase in furbearer populations, coupled with increasing urban sprawl into rural areas, creates an increased probability for rabies exposure to humans from wild mammals. During 2003, in an effort to slow or reduce the spread of rabies in raccoons, a coordinated group of federal and state agencies implemented an immunization program for the raccoon strain of rabies using aircraft distributed rabies vaccines placed into certain areas. This effort is continuing, however the technology is still evolving and should not be depended upon for elimination of the rabies virus from the wild. 

For information contact Keith McCutcheon, Supervising Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources at 256-435-5422.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Parks, State Lands, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

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