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Rabies is a vaccine preventable disease in humans, dogs, cats and ferrets as well as some domestic livestock. All mammals are susceptible to rabies and it is nearly always fatal. Rabies can be prevented in humans with timely and appropriate treatment. In North Carolina the disease most often occurs in wild animals especially skunks, raccoons, bats and foxes. Raccoon rabies is present in the raccoon population in virtually every North Carolina county.

Domestic animals (including cats, dogs, ferrets and livestock such as horses, cattle and sheep) are susceptible to rabies but there are few cases because of the use of USDA-licensed rabies vaccines. North Carolina law (N.C. general statute 130A-185 External link) requires owners of dogs, cats and ferrets to have their pets currently vaccinated against rabies, beginning at four months of age.

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. You can only get rabies by coming in contact with the saliva, tears or brain/nervous system tissue of an infected animal — for example, if you are bitten by a rabid animal, handle a pet that has been attacked by a rabid animal such as a fox, or are cleaning a dead animal you have killed while hunting.

The number of human deaths attributed to rabies in the United States now averages just one or two each year. Most of those cases have been traced to bats. Bat bites can be difficult to detect and may not cause a person to wake from a sound sleep. To protect yourself from bat bites, do not sleep in a home, cabin, tent, shelter or other lodging facility if bats have access to the living space. If you awaken to find a bat in your room, tent, or cabin, it should be safely captured External link (do not release the bat!) and tested for rabies as quickly as possible, and you should seek medical advice immediately. This is also true if a bat is found in a room with an infant, young child, or a person with cognitive impairment, even if they are awake, as they may have been bitten but are unable to say so. Once you have secured the bat inside a room, call your local animal control for help. Never handle a bat or any dead animal with your bare hands.

People who are bitten by a mammal or otherwise possibly exposed to rabies should first wash any wounds thoroughly with soap and water for 15 minutes and then seek immediate medical attention to prevent the development of fatal disease. A doctor will determine what treatment is needed, such as post-exposure vaccination. Bites should also be reported to the local health department External link, and animal control External link should be called immediately to ensure that the biting animal is captured and tested (wild or ill animal) or confined (healthy domestic animal).

An exposure to rabies is an urgent situation: once symptoms appear, it is usually too late to start treatment, and the disease is nearly always fatal.

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