Raccoons are found throughout much of North and Central America and have become very common, even in urban and suburban areas. With their distinctive masked faces and ringed tails, raccoons are generally fun to watch scampering around. However, their increasing proximity to humans raises the question – can raccoons transmit the serious viral disease known as rabies?

The short answer is yes, raccoons are one of the major carriers of the rabies virus in the United States. In fact, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), raccoons are the most commonly reported rabid wildlife species.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that attacks the nervous system of mammals, including humans. The rabies virus is typically transmitted through the bite of an infected animal, as the virus is present in the saliva. Once exposed, the virus travels along the nerve pathways until it reaches the brain.

Raccoon dog

Initial symptoms of rabies can be very general, such as headache, fever, and fatigue. As the disease progresses, more severe neurological signs appear, including anxiety, confusion, agitation, delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and insomnia. Once clinical signs of the disease develop, it is almost always fatal if untreated.

Rabies is a major public health concern, as an estimated 59,000 people worldwide die from rabies each year. However, thanks to widespread pet vaccination programs and public education, only 1-3 human rabies cases are reported annually in the United States.

Raccoons and Rabies Transmission

So why are raccoons considered a high risk vector for rabies transmission? There are a few key reasons:

  1. Raccoon populations have been increasing across North America in recent decades, leading to more human-raccoon interactions.
  2. Raccoons are highly curious and opportunistic mammals that frequently raid garbage cans, pet food bowls, etc. bringing them into close proximity with humans and domestic animals.
  3. Raccoons commonly interact and fight with other raccoons, providing opportunities for the rabies virus to spread through bites.
  4. Raccoons can survive for quite a while after contracting rabies before succumbing to the disease, allowing more time for transmission.
  5. Raccoons are one of the major rabies reservoir species, meaning the virus can circulate continually within their populations even without re-exposure from other animal species.

While not all raccoons are rabid, the CDC estimates that around 30% of raccoons submitted for rabies testing annually are found to be infected with the virus. This high percentage underscores the need for caution around these urban scavengers.

Reducing Rabies Risks from Raccoons

There are some common sense steps that can reduce your risks of exposure to potentially rabid raccoons:

  • Never approach or try to pet or capture raccoons. Their normal behavior is to be wary of humans.
  • Do not leave pet food or garbage where it provides an attractive nuisance for raccoons. Keep outdoor areas clean.

Raccoon dog

  • Make sure your pets’ rabies vaccinations are up-to-date to protect them if they do have a run-in with a raccoon.
  • Teach children to avoid wildlife and to immediately tell an adult if they are bitten or scratched by an animal.
  • If you must remove a raccoon from your property, hire an experienced wildlife control company to handle it safely.

What if You Are Bitten?

Despite precautions, raccoon bites do sometimes occur. If you are bitten or scratched by a raccoon, immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and contact your physician right away regarding post-exposure rabies vaccinations.

Raccoon dog

The rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) consists of one dose of rabies immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine given over a 14-day period. Though no treatment is 100% effective, this protocol is extremely successful at preventing rabies when given promptly after exposure.

Reducing Your Risks

While raccoons certainly can carry and transmit the deadly rabies virus, being informed about the risks and taking sensible precautions can allow us to peacefully co-exist with these intelligent, adaptable mammals. Leave raccoons alone, vaccinate your pets, and seek immediate medical attention for any raccoon bites or scratches. With some basic vigilance, the risks of contracting rabies can be minimized.

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