Rabies is a preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal that infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.

There has not been a human case of rabies in Rhode Island since 1940. However, the raccoon adapted strain of the rabies virus is widely found in the wild animal population throughout Rhode Island. Animals with the greatest susceptibility to this strain are raccoons, with spill over into the skunk, fox and woodchuck populations (high risk animals). Unimmunized pets and stray cats, dogs and ferrets (low risk animals) can acquire rabies through exposure to high risk animals. Animals such as rodents, rabbits, squirrels and opossums rarely acquire rabies and are considered low-risk animals. Cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and other mammals can also develop rabies.

Bats in Rhode Island are also known to be infected with the bat strain of rabies virus. Bat rabies strains are highly transmissible to humans, and preventive vaccination is often recommended for exposure by proximity even without a visible wound, if the bat is not available for testing. (Learn more about bats, rabies, and what to do if you find a bat in your home. )


How It Spreads

Humans may be exposed to the rabies virus through a bite, scratch or direct contact, where there is contamination of a scratch, abrasion, mucous membrane, or fresh open wound with potentially infectious material such as saliva or central nervous system tissue from an animal. The majority of such exposures are from dog bites or cat bites/scratches. A less common way to be exposed to the rabies virus is for pet owner to touch saliva from a high risk animal which has been deposited in a wound or the muzzle of the pet, resulting from a back yard encounter between the pet and a wild animal.


  • Vaccinate pets
  • Avoid contact with wildlife and strays
  • Wear gloves to tend pets with wounds of unknown origin, or immediately after encounters have
    occurred between the pet and either stray animals or wildlife
  • Contain garbage to prevent attracting animals and animal proof your homes.
  • Vaccinate persons in high-risk occupations (vets, etc.) with a pre-exposure schedule of rabies vaccine
    (2 doses of vaccine on days 0 and 7).


Rabies is a serious disease. It is very important to call your doctor right away if you have been bitten by an animal.

If You are Bitten or Scratched by an Animal

  • Wash all wounds and the area around the wound thoroughly with soap and water. (Washing for 5-10 minutes can destroy as much as 90% of the rabies virus.)
  • Contact your doctor or local hospital emergency room.
  • Call the Department of Health and the animal control officer at the police department to report the incident. Provide the authorities with an accurate description of the animal (including distinctive markings, not just color and breed).
  • Capture and isolate the animal if possible, but do not risk further injury to yourself or a pet if the animal is dangerous.
  • Keep children away from all animals involved.

If Your Pet is Bitten or Scratched by another Animal

  • Try to find out what type of animal bit or scratched your pet. Do not touch the attacking animal.
  • Wear rubber gloves and a hose to wash your pet's wounds. Do not touch your pet with bare hands. There may be saliva from the rabid animal still on your pet.
  • Call your pet's veterinarian immediately, even if the wound is superficial.
  • Call the animal control officer at the police department and the Department of Health,

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