Causes of rabies

Learn about the cause of rabies and how it is spread.

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The cause of rabies

Rabies is a viral infection in animals that can spread to humans. It is caused by a virus which attacks the nervous system and eventually affects the brain.

To cause an infection, the rabies virus must enter your body and reach your nerve cells. The virus then travels to your brain through your nerves. It reproduces in your brain and then travels back through your nerves to certain parts of your body and causes a variety of neurologic symptoms.

How rabies is spread

Rabies spreads to humans through close contact with an infected animal's:

  • saliva
  • brain and nervous system tissue or fluids

Rabies is usually transmitted by the bite of an infected animal through the animal's saliva.

You can also get rabies if a rabid animal licks:

  • your open skin, such as a:
    • rash
    • wound
    • scratch
  • your mucous membranes, such as your:
    • eyes
    • nose
    • mouth

However, licking open skin or mucous membranes rarely results in rabies transmission.

Other contact like petting a rabid animal or contact with their blood, urine or feces does not put you at risk for rabies.

Any mammal (warm-blooded animal) can be infected with rabies including:

  • domestic animals:
    • household pets, such as dogs, cats and ferrets
    • stray dogs and cats
    • farm animals, such as horses, cattle and other livestock
  • wild animals:
    • bats
    • foxes
    • skunks
    • raccoons
    • other wild mammals

Small mammals are unlikely to transmit rabies because they are usually killed when bitten by a rabid animal. Rabies is rarely found in:

  • rats
  • mice
  • gerbils
  • rabbits
  • squirrels
  • chipmunks

In very rare circumstances, rabies has been transmitted through:

  • handling and skinning of an infected carcass
  • airborne spread after exposure in a laboratory
  • organ and corneal transplants from persons dying of undiagnosed neurological disease
  • airborne spread in caves with large amounts of virus where infected bats were roosting
  • contact with saliva and nervous tissue from a symptomatic human infected with rabies (person-to-person)
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