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Dog and cat bites are common injuries to people. When a bite occurs there is often concern about potential exposure to rabies. Most dogs and cats in Maine are vaccinated for rabies, but rabies is persistently present in our animal population at a low level so the concern is justified.
RABIES TRANSMISSION If a dog or cat is exposed to rabies the virus travels from the site of exposure (for example, a puncture wound) along the dog or cat's nerves to the brain and then to the salivary glands. The infected animal is then capable of infecting another animal or person by transmitting the rabies virus in it's saliva by a bite. By the time of this bite the biter's disease will also be advanced enough that it will show obvious signs of illness within 10 days or less.
10 DAY OBSERVATION OF THE BITER The biting dog or cat must be quarantined and observed for 10 days. If it is infected with rabies virus and the disease is advanced to the point where the biter is capable of infecting another animal, then the biter will become obviously ill in 10 days or less. The relevant public health authority is notified about the bite.
If the dog or cat appears normal 10 days after biting then it was not shedding rabies virus at the time of the bite, and the bite victim was not exposed.
If signs suggestive of rabies develop during the 10 day quarantine the dog or cat should be euthanized and tested for rabies (rabies testing is not possible without euthanasia).
This observation period is required regardless of whether or not the biter has been properly vaccinated for rabies. Rabies vaccines are extremely effective, but not 100% effective. Thus, any bite victim has the potential for rabies exposure, although this risk is presumably very low when the biter is properly vaccinated.
Dogs and cats should not be euthanized during the 10 day observation period. If medical or human/animal welfare reasons dictate that this must be done, then the biter should be tested for rabies.
A PROPERLY VACCINATED DOG OR CAT is bitten by a potentially rabid animal it should receive an immediate rabies vaccine booster and be observed (not quarantined) for signs of illness for 45 days.
IF AN UNVACCINATED DOG OR CAT is bitten by a potentially rabid animal it must be quarantined for 6 months or euthanized.
IF A PERSON IS BITTEN by a potentially rabid animal postexposure treatment is usually delayed until the 10 day observation period of the biting animal is complete. Two possible exceptions are: 1) massive salivary exposure from a severe bite and 2) bites to the head and neck (the rabies virus has less distance to travel to the brain).
Potential rabies exposure is an urgent medical problem but not typically an emergency; there is usually enough time to safely obtain the desired information from the 10 day observation and quarantine rather than immediatly starting postexposure treatment.
Many people who work with animals have been vaccinated for rabies. If the biting animal tests positive for rabies these vaccinated people must still undergo postexposure treatment.
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