Rabies: What to Do For a Dog, Cat, or Ferret Bite?

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Ask the experts

What should I do for a dog (or cat or ferret) bite? Can't these animals carry rabies?

Doctor's response

You should seek medical evaluation for any and all animal bites.

Rabies is uncommon in dogs, cats, and ferrets in the United States. Very few bites by these animals carry a risk of rabies. If the cat (or dog or ferret) appeared healthy at the time you were bitten, it should be confined by its owner for 10 days and observed. No anti-rabies prophylaxis is needed. No person in the U.S. has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days.

If a dog, cat, or ferret appeared ill at the time that it bit you (or anyone else) or the animal becomes ill during the 10-day quarantine, it should be evaluated by a veterinarian for signs of rabies and you should seek medical advice about the need for anti-rabies prophylaxis.

The quarantine period is a precaution against the remote possibility that an animal may appear healthy, but actually be sick with rabies.

Rabies virus inoculated into a muscle travels from the site of the inoculation to the brain by moving within nerves. The animal does not appear ill during this time, which is called the incubation period and which may last for weeks to months. A bite by the animal during the incubation period does not carry a risk of rabies because the virus is not in saliva. Only late in the disease, after the virus has reached the brain and multiplied there to cause an encephalitis (or inflammation of the brain), does the virus move from the brain to the salivary glands and saliva. Also at this time, after the virus has multiplied in the brain, almost all animals begin to show the first signs of rabies. Most of these signs are obvious to even an untrained observer, but within a short period of time, usually within 3 to 5 days, the virus has caused enough damage to the brain that the animal begins to show unmistakable signs of rabies. As an added precaution, the quarantine period is lengthened to 10 days.

This answer is based upon information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Reviewed on 1/11/2018
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