Raccoons are one of the most common carriers of the rabies virus in North America. These clever and adaptable mammals have flourished in urban and suburban areas across the continent, leading to increased interactions between raccoons and humans. Unfortunately, this close proximity has also facilitated the transmission of diseases like rabies from raccoons to people and pets. As an expert in wildlife diseases, I’ll explain how raccoons contract rabies and spread this deadly virus.

What is Rabies?

Raccoon dog

Rabies is a viral zoonotic disease that affects mammals, including raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and other wildlife. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system and brain, causing inflammation and eventually death if left untreated. It spreads through contact with infected saliva, most commonly through bites from rabid animals.

Once inside a new host, the virus multiplies and travels along nerves towards the brain and salivary glands. During this “prodromal” phase of 1-3 months, infected raccoons may appear relatively normal. As the virus reaches the brain, however, it causes drastic neurological changes and the “furious” stage of rabies begins.

Raccoons in the Furious Rabies Stage

Raccoon dog

The furious stage is named for the aggressive, agitated behavior that rabid raccoons often exhibit. Typical signs include:

  • Unprovoked aggression and attacking
  • Excessive drooling/salivating
  • Sudden lack of fear towards humans/pets
  • Walking in circles or other neurological issues
  • Nocturnal animals like raccoons emerging during daylight

Infected raccoons basically lose all of their natural instincts for self-preservation and shyness towards humans. Their only drive is to bite and spread the virus through saliva before dying within 7-10 days. This makes rabid raccoons incredibly dangerous during this terminal stage.

How Raccoons Initially Catch Rabies

There are a few common ways that raccoons first contract rabies in an area:

  1. Bite from a Rabid Animal The rabies virus circulates in cycles between different reservoir species. If a raccoon is bitten by a rabid fox, skunk, or bat, the vulnerable raccoon can pick up the virus. Even a small bite allows infected saliva entry.
  2. Exposure to Rabid Saliva Raccoons frequently fight over territory, mates, or food sources. If they come into contact with infected saliva through open wounds during aggressive encounters, the virus can be transmitted between raccoons.
  3. Scavenging on Infected Carcasses As opportunistic omnivores, raccoons will eat just about anything – including dead animals. If a raccoon ingests nervous system tissue or saliva from a rabid animal carcass, it risks contracting rabies.

Raccoon dog

Once introduced into the raccoon population, the rabies virus can spread rapidly through their networks of dens and social groups. Raccoons commonly move between 1-3 miles per night while foraging, allowing them to come into contact with other raccoon families and spread the virus to new areas.

Raccoon Strain of Rabies Virus

It’s important to note that raccoons can carry their own distinct “raccoon strain” of the rabies virus. Many rabies vaccine products only cover the bat and fox strains, leaving pets or livestock still vulnerable to the raccoon variant if exposed. I always recommend using vaccines specifically labeled to cover the raccoon rabies virus strain when immunizing domestic animals.

Preventing the Spread of Raccoon Rabies

Raccoon dog

As both cute urbanites and potential disease vectors, raccoons present a complex challenge. To help prevent raccoon rabies outbreaks, experts advise taking the following precautions:

  • Vaccinating all dogs, cats, and livestock against rabies
  • Securing outdoor trash cans and feeding areas to avoid attracting raccoons
  • Closing entry points to attics and outbuildings to discourage dens
  • Avoiding approaching or handling raccoons, especially those acting abnormally
  • Contacting wildlife officials to safely remove/test sick raccoons

By understanding how raccoons contract and spread rabies, we can better protect both human and animal health. With vigilance and preventative vaccination, we can dramatically reduce deadly encounters with rabid raccoons.

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