Rabies is a preventable viral disease that affects mammals and is usually transmitted to people through a bite or scratch from an infected animal. The virus attacks the nervous system, and by the time that visible signs appear, the disease is usually fatal.

Over the last 100 years, rabies incidents in the United States have changed dramatically. More than 90% of all animal cases reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now occur in wildlife; before 1960, the majority of cases were in domestic animals. This is primarily due to the vaccination of domestic animals, including cats and dogs. The principal rabies hosts today are foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and bats.

Many people think rabies is not a problem anymore, but a few human cases are reported in the U.S. every year (usually a result of exposure to bats). In many other countries, rabies is still a significant concern, so travelers should be aware of this risk and avoid unknown animals, especially free-roaming dogs.

Infected animals may show a variety of signs, including fearfulness, aggression, excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing (aversion to water), staggering, or seizures. Rabid wild animals may only show unusual behavior; for example, an animal that is usually only seen at night may wander around during the day. Vaccinating your cat or dog is the best method of prevention and is required by law in many communities, including Cook County.

If your pet is bitten by an animal, consult with your veterinarian immediately and report the bite to local animal control authorities. (In Cook County, contact the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control.) Your pet may need to be re-vaccinated or, in some cases, placed in quarantine.

If you are bitten by an animal, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Call your physician immediately and follow his or her advice. If possible, confine or capture the animal that bit you, but only if you can do so safely and without getting bitten again. Call the local animal control authorities (such as the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control or, if you’re located in the city of Chicago, Chicago Animal Care and Control) to come and collect the animal. If the animal cannot be captured, try to remember its appearance and location. All mammal bites to humans must be reported to the local police department.

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