Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system of mammals. The infection creates a progressive inflammation of the brain. In the United States, the primary reservoir for the virus is in wildlife; domestic animals are usually exposed by contact with infected wild animals. Bats, skunks, racoons, and foxes are the usual culprits for spreading infection in Ohio with cats and dogs occasionally testing positive as well. Other animals that can potentially carry rabies include ferrets, horses, livestock, and other mammals. Humans can contract rabies from wildlife or domestic animals.
From 2016–2021, data collected from the Ohio Department of Health, Bureau of Infectious Disease, Zoonotic Disease Program reported 225 confirmed animal rabies cases in Ohio. These cases included 194 bats, 29 raccoons, one cat, and one fox. While skunks and dogs have tested positive in the past, no confirmed cases were reported in those two species in this time period. In the 2016–2021 time period confirmed cases were detected in 51 of Ohio’s 88 counties with a wide disbursement to all corners of the state.
How is Rabies Spread?
The rabies virus is spread by contact with saliva or neural tissue containing the virus from an infected animal, usually through bites or scratches, abrasions, or open wounds in the skin. Blood, urine, and feces are not thought to be a source of rabies virus transmission. Domestic animals may become exposed during normal grazing or roaming. Occasionally, rabid wild animals will enter barns, paddocks, and lots. Livestock are often exposed when they investigate this new animal in their surroundings. Because people can be exposed to rabies by contact with wild or domestic animals, avoid animals showing signs of aggression, neurologic disease, excessive drooling, or any other unusual behaviors.
The classic, or "furious," form of rabies may occur in livestock, pets, or wildlife. The animal appears nervous and agitated, or becomes aggressive, attacking other animals and people. However, the main symptom is unusual behavior, which gradually leads to depression or partial paralysis. Cows typically develop a hoarse bellow. Drooling and abnormal swallowing may make them appear to have something caught in their throats. Some animals may only show depression and weakness, or partial paralysis of the hindquarters. During the course of several hours to a few days, the animal will go down, develop convulsive seizures, and die. Sheep have symptoms similar to cattle, and sometimes vigorously pull their wool. The disease is often seen in more than one sheep in a flock because the animals stay close together and several can be easily bitten at one time. Goats with rabies are often aggressive and bleat continuously.
Horses tend to contract the paralytic form of the disease and may initially show abnormal postures with wobbliness of the hindquarters, frequent whinnying, unexplained aggressiveness (with kicking and biting), and signs of colic. They may also show lameness in one leg, followed by an inability to rise the next day. Pigs with rabies tend to act excited and uncoordinated. Some animals will chew rapidly, salivate, and convulse. Paralysis eventually occurs and death follows in 12 to 48 hours.
The symptoms seen in rabid animals may be quite variable, making early detection difficult. In addition, other diseases, such as nervous ketosis in dairy cows or pseudorabies in pigs and other livestock, may mimic some of the signs of rabies. For these reasons, owners should isolate animals showing suspicious behavior or other signs so they may be observed carefully, and precautions should be taken to avoid injury by them. A veterinarian should be consulted to determine whether rabies should be considered in the diagnosis.
A number of rabies vaccines are available for domestic animals. Several products are licensed for dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, and horses. All dogs, cats, and ferrets should be routinely vaccinated for rabies. No products are currently licensed for goats, pigs, exotic animals (except ferrets), or captive wild animals. There are licensed rabies vaccine products only available to government agencies to control rabies in wildlife such as raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. Vaccination of animals for which no approved product exists can create a false sense of security. It is recommended that you contact your veterinarian to discuss the best way to vaccinate goats for rabies. Prevention of exposure to wildlife is currently the recommendation to protect swine from rabies.
Livestock and horse owners may decide to vaccinate their animals if they are often exposed to potentially rabid wild or domestic animals. Rabies is a core vaccine for horses recommended from the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Although pastured animals are generally at greater risk, rabid animals, especially stray cats and dogs, may still enter a building and expose farm animals. Generally, production animals, such as dairy cow herds and sheep flocks, are not vaccinated. The main reasons production animals aren't vaccinated are because potential risks are usually lower than annual vaccination costs and the the possibility of contact between humans and individual animals is low. Small groups of valuable purebred animals may be an exception. In recent years, a few states have required vaccination for rabies before an animal (including some livestock) is exhibited or travelled with. Owners should inquire about this before making plans to travel. Your veterinarian can be of great help in making the decision about the need for rabies vaccination.
Vaccination of people in high-risk jobs, such as veterinarians, wildlife personnel, and animal control officers, is often recommended. Humans are routinely vaccinated following a potential exposure. Livestock owners should immediately consult with their physicians if they think they could have been exposed to a rabid animal, and for advice concerning the potential value of pre-exposure vaccination.
Stray cats, dogs, raccoons, and other wildlife in and around barns and other farm buildings can increase the risk of rabies. Make your farm less attractive to these animals by eliminating nesting, hiding, and roosting places, and by using specific deterrents, such as screening potential entry points. Never feed stray animals or wildlife and don't allow pet food or garbage to remain in open, unsecured containers. For more information on wildlife control, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife.
The Ohio Department of Health requires that rabies-suspect animals and animal bites are reported to a local health department within 24 hours of encountering or being bitten by the animal. A list of local health departments is available on the ODH website at odh.ohio.gov. Animals that demonstrate changes in behavior, especially extreme nervousness or aggression, difficulty in swallowing or signs of choking, changes in voice, or other suspicious signs should be treated with caution and isolated. A veterinarian who can help make a diagnosis of possible rabies should be contacted. Rabies suspects are tested by the Ohio Department of Health laboratories. Arrangements for testing can be made through your veterinarian, local health department, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at odh.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/odh/know-our-programs/zoonotic-disease-program/forms/odh-lab-rabies-test-submission-form.
American Association of Equine Practitioners. n.d. “Vaccination Guidelines.” Accessed September 30, 2021. aaep.org/guidelines/vaccination-guidelines.
Brown, Catherine, Sally Slavinski, Paul Ettestad, Tom Sidwa, and Faye Sorhage. 2016. “Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2016.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Volume 248, No. 5: 505–517. nasphv.org/Documents/NASPHVRabiesCompendium.pdf.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. “Rabies.” Reviewed September 23, 2021. cdc.gov/rabies/index.html.
Ohio Department of Health. n.d. Animal Rabies Incidence by Species, Ohio, 2016–2020. ODH Bureau of Infectious Diseases, Zoonotic Disease Program. Accessed September 30, 2021. PDF. odh.ohio.gov/wps/wcm/connect/gov/.
This fact sheet was originally written in 1997 by William Shulaw, DVM, and Randall E. James, PhD, The Ohio State University. It was reviewed in 1997 by Gary Bowman, DVM; Kent Hoblet, DVM; Richard Novak, DVM; and Teresa Morishita, DVM, The Ohio State University.