Rabies in Alabama
By M. Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist
In medieval times the madness was called “The Cober.” There was even a patron saint, Saint Hubert, for its victims. Cober victims could pray at his shrine, or could employ iron bars or crosses, known as the “keys” of St. Hubert. These iron keys were heated red hot, and applied to wounds left by a biting animal.
Today, we know the disease as rabies. It’s perhaps the wildlife disease most widely known by the public – probably because of the required inoculation programs for domestic dogs and cats, and because of the 100 percent fatality rate in untreated humans.
Rabies is also called hydrophobia in humans, which means literally “fear of water” due to the painful and involuntary spasms caused by attempts to drink, or sometimes by the sight or sound of water. This fear of water seems not to occur in rabid animals; hence hydrophobia applies only to rabies in humans. Technically classified as a rhabdovirus, rabies is transmitted by the bite, or by exposure of fresh wounds to the saliva of an infected animal.
Rabies is almost totally a disease of mammals. Most susceptible are the wild mammalian carnivores. High risk species in our area include raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks and bats. Domestic dogs and cats can and do, of course, contract the disease, but the largest reservoir of the disease in our area seems to be raccoon populations.
Interestingly, opossums are relatively resistant to rabies and are considered a low risk for infection. Experiments have shown that 50 thousand times the dose is required to infect an opossum than is required to infect a fox. Rodents, rabbits, and white-tailed deer are also considered low risk for contracting and transmitting the disease.
The Alabama Department of Public Health began collecting data on rabies-infected animals in 1948. Through 2005, they have recorded 8,105 positive cases of rabies in Alabama in wildlife and domestic animals. The percentages of positive case by species are domestic dog (41.8 percent), fox (18.8 percent), raccoon (18.1 percent), bats (8.6 percent), cow (4.5 percent), domestic cat (3 percent), and skunk (2.9 percent). Other wildlife and domestic animals comprise the remaining cases, each having a percentage of less than 1 percent. Interestingly, there have been seven cases of human rabies (.08 percent) in Alabama during this time. The last case in humans was in 1994 and it was the only confirmed positive case in humans since 1963.
The risk from rabies in the U.S. is generally very low, and in recent years the incidence of human rabies has declined markedly as it has decreased in domesticated animals. To reduce your risk, especially to folks living in rural areas or in close proximity to wildlife, certain cautionary measures can be followed.
If you see a seemingly sick or strange acting animal, simply avoid it and report it to your local animal control officer. Be sure and vaccinate your domestic dogs and cats. Livestock may also be vaccinated in areas where rabies is prevalent.
Do not keep wild animals as pets, or try to raise baby wild animals. Not only do they not make very good pets and the survival rate of orphaned wildlife is low, but it is against Alabama law to keep wildlife or to have any canine or feline for which there is no approved rabies vaccine. Be very careful in feeding wild mammals, particularly raccoons, and attracting them to your house. Artificial feeding is not only unhealthy for the animals, but it increases the potential exposure to the disease and might attract a rabid mammal to your house. Alabama law requires reporting of anyone bitten by an animal.
Whether you are treated for rabies depends upon the circumstances of the potential exposure to the disease. If you are bitten or suspect exposure to a rabid animal, you should contact your physician or county health department immediately. Employing St. Hubert is definitively not recommended.
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.