Rabies is a fatal disease spread from animals to humans. It is caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system resulting in seizures, paralysis, and eventually death. The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of a rabid animal. It is most commonly spread from animals to humans when a rabid animal bites a person, but scratches and saliva contact with broken skin or mucous membranes (for example, the eyes or mouth) can also spread the virus.
Important Facts about Rabies
- Only warm-blooded animals can be affected by the rabies virus and become rabid
- Dogs and cats can get rabies if they are not vaccinated
- Rabies is rarely seen in rodents such as mice, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, guinea pigs, hamsters, or rabbits
- Birds, turtles, lizards, fish, and insects cannot get rabies
If preventative treatment is given quickly after a person is exposed to rabies, it is unlikely they will become sick. If treatment is not given quickly, a person infected with rabies will die. This is why it is important to see a physician immediately if you are bitten by an aggressive animal, or animal that is acting abnormally, especially if it was a wild animal.
Rabies in the District of Columbia
In the District of Columbia (DC), rabies is most commonly found in bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks. Each year, the DC Health Animal Services Program tests hundreds of wild and domestic animals. Most of the tests are negative for the disease; however, animals carrying rabies are identified every year.
While it is possible for squirrels to get rabies, in the U.S. a squirrel has never given rabies to a person. In DC squirrels are very used to people but will bite if hand fed. Use the following handout to learn about normal and abnormal behavior in DC squirrels: Don’t Feed Squirrels
What can be done to prevent rabies?
Vaccinate pets against rabies
Rabies is vaccine-preventable in both people and animals. DC code (8-1803) require that all cats and dogs over four months of age be vaccinated against rabies. To help residents comply with the law, the DC Health Animal Services Program offers annual free vaccination clinics throughout the city. DC dog licenses are also available for sale at the clinics. Clinics are scheduled periodically throughout the year. Call (202) 535-2323 for more information.
Avoid contact with potentially rabid animals
- Avoid contact with all stray dogs and stray cats, as well as wild animals.
- Do not handle, feed or attract wild animals by leaving trashcans uncovered. Never “adopt” a wild animal.
- Avoid contact with any animal that is acting abnormally and displaying signs of rabies such as the following:
- Pets acting withdrawn
- Wildlife acting unusually friendly or calm
- Animals acting unusually aggressive, potentially snapping or lunging at anything in their path
- Animals active in the daytime that normally only appear at night
- Animals demonstrating difficulty swallowing and excessive salivation (drooling)
- Animals that are fearful of water or light
- Animals searching for an isolated place to die
- Bats and rabies: Bats play key roles in our ecosystem. However, some can also carry rabies. Any bat can carry the virus, and it’s impossible to tell if a bat has rabies by looking at it. This is why you should never touch a bat and immediately see a doctor if you think you may have been bitten or scratched by a bat. If you or your pet comes across a bat use the guidance in the following handout to stay safe: Bats and Rabies
Quarantine domestic animals potentially exposed to rabies
Quarantining an animal does not mean it will be confiscated or killed, but observed for a specific period of time to see if it becomes ill.
- If your animal bites or attacks a person, DC Municipal Regulations DCMR 22-B203 require that you keep your dog or cat quarantined on your property (or another location if deemed necessary) for 10 days. A representative from DC Animal Control will inspect your animal on the first (day 1) and last day (day 10). If your animal starts acting sick or runs away during the quarantine period, notify DC Animal Control immediately. If your animal remains healthy during the quarantine, your animal will be released from quarantine (and the exposed person will not require rabies prophylaxis).
- If your vaccinated animal is bitten or attacked by another animal, they should be examined by a licensed veterinarian immediately. Based on your animal’s vaccination history, and the circumstances of the animal attack, DC Health may require your animal be quarantined. The length of the quarantine will be determined by your veterinarian and DC Animal Control. If your unvaccinated dog or cat is exposed to a rabid or suspected-rabid animal, DC Municipal Regulations mandate that your animal be quarantined in strict isolation for four months. If your animal has evidence of receiving at least one USDA-licensed rabies vaccine in the past 3 years you may only need to quarantine them on your property (or another location if deemed necessary) for 45 days at the most.
Information for Human Healthcare Providers
Reporting a person bitten by an animal
All cases where a person was attacked by an animal, potentially exposed to rabies, or deemed necessary to administer rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) should be reported using DC Reporting and Surveillance Center (DCRC), our online reporting system.
►Report an animal bite by submitting a DCRC Animal Bite Report Form.
PEP Guidance and Resources for Testing People
- Rabies PEP Administration DC Guidelines Flowchart (domestic animal bites a person)
- Rabies PEP Administration DC Guidelines Flowchart (wildlife bites a person)
- CDC Guidelines for Treating Rabies Exposures in Humans
- CDC Use of a Reduced (4-Dose Vaccine Schedule for PEP to Prevent Human Rabies
- CDC Guidelines for Rabies Testing in Humans
- Rabies PEP Programs for Uninsured and Underinsured Patients
- WHO Guide for Post-exposure Prophylaxis (for exposures occurring outside the U.S.)
- CDC Yellow Book: Rabies
Information for Animal Healthcare Providers
These documents provide quick references for animal healthcare providers in regards to quarantining, treating, and reporting animals that have attacked a person or been attacked by another animal.
Reporting an animal that bit a person (or animal) or was bitten by another animal
All cases where an animal attacked or was attacked by another animal, was potentially exposed to rabies, or deemed necessary to undergo a rabies quarantine should be reported using DC Reporting and Surveillance Center (DCRC), our online reporting system, or by contacting DC Animal Control at (202) 576-6664.
►Report an animal bite by submitting a DCRC Animal Bite Report Form.
- Animal Exposure and Quarantine Guidelines
- DC Rabies Quarantine Guidelines Flowchart (domestic animal bites a person)
- DC Rabies Quarantine Guidelines Flowchart (domestic animal bites a domestic animal)
- DC Rabies Quarantine Guidelines Flowchart (wildlife bites a domestic animal)
- 2016 NASPHV Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control
Rabies FAQ Sheets and Client Handouts
- Center for Food Security and Public Health Rabies FAQ Sheets
- AVMA Rabies Client Information Brochure (English)
- AVMA Rabies Client Information Brochure (Spanish)
Health Standards for Importing and Exporting Animals
DC Health Rabies Contact Information
- For questions regarding administering PEP, quarantining animals, or rabies, email [email protected].
- For PEP guidance, call (202) 442-9143 during business hours.
- For animal quarantine guidance, call (202) 442-4932 during business hours.
- For Virginia Residents: Virginia Department of Health
- For Maryland Residents: Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website