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Could I Have Rabies? What to Look For and Steps to Take After an Animal Bite

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Could I Have Rabies? What to Look For and Steps to Take After an Animal Bite

Mar 10, 2021

Rabies is a very serious virus. Once a person is infected, there is not much a doctor can do to treat it. If a dog, cat, bat, or other mammal you might suspect has rabies has bitten you, get to the doctor. The first dose of the vaccine should be administered within the first 24 hours after exposure. Emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen explains what types of animals may have the virus and what to watch for with potential exposure. Dr. Madsen also puts to rest the rumors that the rabies vaccine is painful and administered into the stomach.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You get bitten by some sort of animal, whether it's a dog or a wild animal, the first thing you probably are starting to worry about is, "Did I get rabies?" We're going to find out more about that next on The Scope.

Dr. Troy Madsen's an emergency room physician at University of Utah Health Care. You get bit by an animal, I think the first thing a lot of people think after, "Ouch," is, "Ooh, do I have rabies?" Is that a real threat?

Dr. Madsen: It's a real concern. So, primarily, you're thinking about this with dog bites, cat bites, raccoons, foxes, and bats. And one of the really interesting about bats is, and this is something I've found kind of fascinating, the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC, actually recommends if you wake up and you look at the ceiling and there's a bat there, they actually recommend getting the rabies vaccine in that situation. The idea being that you may have been bitten by the bat during the night, you may not know you've been bitten, the bite marks are usually so small you can't see them. So the concern is that great.

There are certain animals that you may get bitten by and you may wonder about the concern about rabies, animals like rabbits, rats, mice. Those are not really concerns. The big thing I think about in my mind, typically, the animals that are going to transmit rabies are animals that are not necessarily vegetarian-type animals. So rabbits, those things, they don't really transmit rabies. It's more things like foxes, skunks, raccoons, these kinds of scavenger animals that may be eating some meat here and there. Those kinds of animals are sometimes those that carry rabies and those are the ones we get concerned about in saying, "Hey, if you've been bitten by one of these animals, we probably need to think about rabies."

In terms of dogs and cats, if it's an animal where you don't know the dog or you can't observe it, you don't know if it's had its shots, those are also animals where absolutely we worried about rabies and we treat you potentially to prevent a rabies infection.

Interviewer: So if it's a neighborhood dog, good idea to go talk to that neighbor, get that information and save yourself from the rabies shots, I suppose?

Dr. Madsen: Exactly.

Interviewer: If you find out, no, they haven't had their vaccinations, but they don't seem to be showing any symptoms, or you've been bitten by another animal where you're unsure, what would the next steps be?

Dr. Madsen: Then, that's a situation where you need to get the rabies vaccine. And what that involves, first of all, is giving them a medication at the site of the bite wound to prevent rabies infection. It's not necessarily the vaccine, but it's something that kind of neutralizes the virus if it is there. And then I start them on a series of basically four shots, where they'll come in, they'll get the shot that day, they'll come back in a few more days, get another shot. These are all vaccines to prevent a rabies infection.

And that's a precaution I'm going to take on anyone who comes in after a bite from any animal that could be carrying rabies. And the reason we're very, very cautious in that situation is because there's not much you can do if someone gets rabies. It's something you really want to prevent. You don't want somebody to catch it because if someone catches rabies and they actually develop the disease, it's almost universally fatal.

Interviewer: Really? So it's bad news, it's serious stuff.

Dr. Madsen: It's bad news if you get it, yeah. It's one of those things you can try and treat it and try and get them through it, but it's a horrible thing to get. So really, the treatment for rabies is prevention.

Interviewer: Gotcha. And these shots, they used to be in the stomach, right? And I heard they used to be really painful and there are a lot of them, but you're saying there's one at the site and then four more after that. Where are those four more?

Dr. Madsen: They're just in your arm or your leg. It's not in the stomach. I remember hearing that as a kid as well.

Interviewer: Has that ever been true?

Dr. Madsen: I don't know. That's . . .

Interviewer: Oh. Not since you've been in medicine.

Dr. Madsen: Not in the last 15 years that I've been in the medical profession.

Interviewer: Okay. All right.

Dr. Madsen: I don't know. I heard that too. I remember always hearing that you had to get a shot in the stomach and I thought, "Wow, if I got bitten by a dog, no way would I want to go get the rabies shot because that sounds miserable." But no, these are shots, you give them the same place you'd give a tetanus shot or something like that. They hurt a little bit, kind of like a tetanus shot would, but it's not something, like some really crazy shot that you're getting in your stomach.

Interviewer: Yeah. And better than the alternative.

Dr. Madsen: It's much better than the alternative. Exactly. You don't want to get rabies.

Interviewer: And is this an ER-only thing or could you do an Urgent Care for this?

Dr. Madsen: I think Urgent Cares can do this. I can't say I've looked into it specifically to see if they offer the rabies vaccine in most Urgent Cares, but it's a pretty straightforward thing. If you went there and they just said, "Hey, we don't have the vaccine here," then they're going to send you to the ER, but I think it's a reasonable place to start.

Interviewer: All right. And is there a time limit? After I get bit, is it a day? Six hours? Three hours?

Dr. Madsen: I would want to get in within the first 24 hours. Really, as soon as you can. I would not put it off, especially, like I said, because one of the vaccines, one of the injections we're giving, at the site of the wound is essentially neutralizing that virus if it's there, so the sooner, the better.

updated: March 10, 2021
originally published: July 22, 2016