Rabies Program

State Public Health Veterinarian Kelly Giesbrecht, DVM, MPH is the primary consultant in the state for rabies and other zoonotic diseases. The Rabies Program in the Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning works to control rabies and prevent human infection, consult on the needs of pre-exposure and post-exposure treatment and train local health department environmental personnel on animal quarantine procedures. Rabies control is provided by law in KRS 258.005-258.990 and under the state Communicable Disease Regulation 902KAR 2:070.

Kentucky counties with rabies cases

Kentucky’s Rabies Profile for 2010

What is rabies and how do people get it?

In 1999, skunks accounted for 21 of the 35 confirmed cases of rabies in Kentucky. Rabies is an infectious viral disease that affects the nervous system. People get rabies from the bite of an infected or rabid, animal. Wild mammals like raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes or bats can have and transmit rabies. Domestic animals like dogs, cats, horses and cattle also can transmit rabies to humans. However, domestic animals account for fewer than 10 percent of all reported rabies cases in animals. It is possible, but extremely rare, to get rabies from exposure to infectious material from a rabid animal, such as saliva, to the eyes, nose, mouth or an open wound.

If you are bitten by a wild or domestic animal

If you have been bitten, scratched or exposed to an animal’s saliva:

  • Wash the wound right away with soap and water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Call your doctor or go to a hospital emergency room, depending on the severity of the wound.
  • Provide a description of the animal and, if possible, confine the animal so it can be quarantined or tested.

Who to contact when a bite occurs

Report all animal bites and other injuries to humans caused by animals to your local health department. In some areas your animal control personnel will be involved in the investigation of the incident, including efforts to find the animal. The local health department environmentalist may recommend a 10-day quarantine for dogs, cats or ferrets; but, for wild animals, immediate rabies testing is necessary. Any physician or other attending medical service provider who treats or consults on an animal bite or scratch incident is required to make a report to the local health department within 12 hours.
Directory of Kentucky Local Health Departments

If a pet dog, cat or ferret is bitten by a wild animal

  1. Wear gloves to handle your pet, so you do not become exposed to the attacking animal’s saliva. Confine your pet or otherwise make sure it does not run away.
  2. Call your veterinarian and local animal control. 

Any animal bitten by either a bat or wild mammal (in Kentucky usually skunks, foxes or raccoons) that is not available for rabies testing should be regarded as having been exposed to rabies.

No cases of rabies among ferrets were confirmed cases of rabies in Kentucky in 1998-99. Still, it is important to vaccinate your pets. Unvaccinated dogs, cats, or ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately.

If the owner is unwilling to do this, the animal must be placed in strict isolation for six months and vaccinated one month before being released. Dogs, cats and ferrets with current rabies vaccinations given by a licensed veterinarian should be revaccinated immediately and kept under observation for 45 days. Animals with expired vaccinations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Vaccination of all dogs, cats and ferrets on the premises protects them from the risk of rabies.

Bats and rabies

Bats accounted for six of the 35 confirmed cases of rabies in Kentucky in 1999. Rabies from bats is the most common source of human infection in the United States. However, bats are unique mammals that are vital to the ecosystems of the world.

Understanding bat habits and behavior can help humans live safely with them.

Signs of a potentially rabid bats include: daylight activity (bats are nocturnal and usually active only after sunset), difficulty flying or found in unusual places. Do not handle any wild bat with your bare hands. Bats have small teeth and, while rare, it is possible to be bitten by a bat an not know it.

Because some bat bites are so tiny they are difficult to see, any time a bat is found in the room of a sleeping person, in the room with an unattended child or near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice and have the bat tested for rabies.

To safely capture a bat, wear heavy leather gloves and place a small box or coffee can over the bat. Slide a piece of cardboard under the box and tape securely. Contact your local health department to make arrangements for testing.

Handling of animals for rabies testing

Rabies testing requires fresh, undamaged brain tissue to provide reliable results. It is best to have the animal in question medically euthanized, so the head and brain are not damaged. Contact your veterinarian or local animal control personnel for information. Your local health department has proper containers and instructions for submitting an animal specimen for rabies testing.

Human rabies vaccination and prophylaxis

Current post-exposure prophylaxis is nearly 100 percent successful in preventing rabies in humans. Most fatalities from rabies occur when people fail to seek prompt medical assistance or are unaware of the exposure, as with some of the cases associated with bat rabies.

Pre-exposure vaccination is available for people at high risk for a rabies exposure such as veterinarians, laboratory personnel and animal control personnel. Post-exposure prophylaxis is available to people who have been exposed to an animal that tested positive to rabies.

Post-exposure prophylaxis is also available for people with a possible exposure to rabies virus, but the animal was not available for testing.
Many countries have a much higher risk of rabies exposure than the United States. If you are traveling to a foreign country, consult your local health department about vaccination recommendations.

Rabies vaccination for your animals

In 1998, four cases of rabies in horses were confirmed in Kentucky.

Approved rabies vaccines are available for dogs, cats, horses, cattle, sheep and ferrets. Animal rabies vaccines should be administered only by or under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Proper and up-to-date vaccination of your pets is your first line of defense against rabies.