Rabies in Wildlife

Rabies is a deadly disease in mammals caused by a virus; the most common method of transmission is through a bite wound. Any mammal (including humans) can contract rabies. In nearly all cases, rabies is fatal – prevention is the key.

In Virginia, there are five high-risk rabies species: raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, and woodchucks (groundhogs). Extreme caution should be taken when assisting these animals. According to the Virginia Department of Health, beavers, opossums, and coyotes are also species of special concern.

  • Raccoon
  • Skunk
  • Bat
  • Fox
  • Groundhog

There is no single set of indications that an animal may have rabies; since it is a neurological disease, rabies can manifest itself many ways. While the stereotypical “furious form” (aggressive behavior, foaming at the mouth) is one manifestation of rabies, infected animals more commonly display the paralytic form of rabies, which is exhibited through lethargy, loss of balance, loss of fear of humans or other animals, and general depression. However, those same depressed signs can also indicate distemper (more common than rabies) or head trauma from an injury.

It’s also important to note that a mammal may have rabies and not yet be exhibiting any symptoms. Simply seeing a nocturnal, high-risk rabies species out during the day is not an indication of rabies; these animals may be actively looking for food during the day, particularly during baby season.

If you have been exposed to a potentially rabid mammal, seek medical treatment immediately. If your pet has been exposed to a potentially rabid mammal, call your veterinarian for further advice.

How to help injured high-risk rabies species:

Injured adult raccoons, skunks, foxes, groundhogs, opossums, and beavers

Don’t touch or try to capture the animal. Call animal control for assistance. Depending on the situation, a humane live trap may be used to capture the injured animal to transport it for treatment, but always get advice before attempting intervention.

Injured bats

Always wear latex gloves inside small protective leather gloves when assisting bats. Place a small box or container (with very small air holes) over the bat, then gently slip a sturdy piece of cardboard underneath the container until the bat steps up— be mindful of the bat’s delicate toes. Roll the bat into the container and tape shut. Tape all the seams of the box, as bats are very good at working their way out of crevices.

You may also place a hand towel in front of the bat and use a stick to gently encourage the bat to crawl onto the towel. Lift the towel into a box without touching the bat and place in a box with small holes poked in it. Tape all the seams of the box.

Injured infant raccoons, skunks, foxes, groundhogs, opossums, and beavers

Wear latex medical gloves inside of leather gloves to handle the infant as you place it in a box or crate. Never handle the animal without wearing gloves; even very young mammals can carry rabies. Remember, unless specifically advised by a veterinarian or permitted wildlife rehabilitator, do not attempt to feed the animal.