Raccoons are one of the most common urban wildlife species in North America. These mischievous mammals are known for raiding trash cans, exploring attics and chimneys, and generally being a nuisance around residential areas. While they may seem harmless enough, raccoons can potentially carry and transmit a serious viral disease – rabies.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral zoonotic disease that primarily infects mammals. It attacks the central nervous system and, if left untreated, is nearly always fatal. The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva, usually from the bite of an infected animal. Raccoons are one of the main reservoir species for rabies in the United States.

Raccoon dog

How Do Raccoons Get Rabies?

Raccoons can contract rabies in a few different ways:

  1. Being bitten by another rabid animal The most common way raccoons get infected is through bites from other rabies reservoir species like skunks, foxes, coyotes, or unvaccinated domestic animals like dogs and cats. When an infected animal bites and exchanges saliva with a raccoon, it can transmit the rabies virus.
  2. Contact with an infected animal’s saliva Raccoons can also potentially get rabies if the saliva from an infected animal gets into open wounds or makes contact with their mucous membranes like the eyes, nose or mouth.
  3. Ingesting infected tissue There is a very small risk of raccoons contracting rabies from ingesting tissue from a rabid animal, though this transmission route is uncommon.

Racoon dog

Are All Raccoons Rabid?

No, not all raccoons carry the rabies virus. In fact, only a small percentage are actually infected at any given time. However, it’s impossible to tell just by looking at a raccoon if it has rabies or not. The virus can incubate for weeks or months before symptoms appear.

Signs of Rabies in Raccoons

Early symptoms of rabies in raccoons are often quite subtle, which is why the virus can go undetected for some time. As the disease progresses, more obvious clinical signs may develop such as:

  • Aggression/Fearlessness of humans
  • Excessive drooling/Foaming at the mouth
  • Erratic/Disoriented wandering
  • Paralysis or lack of coordination
  • Self-mutilation

In the final stages, raccoons may exhibit excessive biting behavior, seizures, and paralysis leading to coma and death within 7-10 days.

If you encounter a raccoon acting strangely or aggressively, it’s best to avoid interaction and contact local wildlife control for safe removal.

Raccoon dog

Rabies Prevention for Raccoons

There is no approved rabies vaccine for wild raccoon populations. Prevention comes down to minimizing interactions between raccoons and other potential rabies vectors like unvaccinated domestic animals. Removing sources of food and shelter that attract raccoons to residential areas is also advisable.

For domestic animals, keeping rabies vaccinations up-to-date is the best defense against potential raccoon transmission. Properly storing outdoor trash, securing entry points to buildings, and deterring densite activity can help discourage raccoons from taking up residence near homes.

Getting Raccoon Exposure Checked Out

If you are bitten or have had potential exposure to raccoon saliva, it’s crucial to seek immediate medical attention. The rabies virus has a nearly 100% fatality rate if left untreated before symptoms appear. Post-exposure prophylaxis treatment is extremely effective if administered promptly after exposure.

Don’t take any chances – any raccoon bite, scratch or saliva contact should be evaluated by a medical professional right away. With rabies, caution is absolutely warranted given its virulent and deadly nature once clinical symptoms set in.

Raccoon dog

Conclusion

While not all raccoons carry the rabies virus at any given time, they are considered a rabies reservoir species that does pose some level of risk to humans and domestic animals. Avoiding direct contact with raccoons, discouraging densite activity around residential areas, and keeping pets up-to-date on rabies vaccinations are important preventative measures.

If you do happen to have a close encounter with a raccoon resulting in a bite, scratch or exposure to saliva, seek out medical care immediately. Rabies is preventable if treated before symptoms occur, but untreated cases are invariably fatal. So when it comes to raccoons and rabies, it’s always better to be safe than sorry!

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