Is Rabies Always Fatal? And Other Facts About Rabies.

by | Nov 15, 2018

Rabid Bat

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a deadly virus that kills by compromising the brain’s ability to regulate breathing, salivation and heartbeat.  Ultimately, victims drown in their own spit or blood, or cannot breathe because of muscle spasms in their diaphragm. 

From the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control:

  • Transmission normally occurs through a bite or direct contact with the saliva of an infected animal.
  • After an incubation period of 3–8 weeks (though sometimes much longer), non-specific symptoms appear, such as headache, fever and numbness of the skin around the site of the bite.
  • A phase of seizures and eventually coma follows, which almost invariably lead to the patient’s death.

Rabies can be avoided by: (a) not being exposed, and (b) getting a series of vaccine treatments soon after being exposed.  The vaccine treatments must be begun within six days of being exposed – long before symptoms of rabies appear. If you develop signs of the disease it is almost certainly too late (see next section).  Rabies has an incubation period of 3-8 weeks  and typically kills within a week of the symptoms showing up. Without a lot of sedatives and painkillers, dying of rabies is an agonizing death.

Can Rabies be Survived?

According to the CDC there are 10 documented cases of people diagnosed with rabies surviving, but only two of those had been previously untreated by the time the symptoms occurred. The most notable case is from 2004 when a 15 year-old girl was bitten by a rabid bat that she picked up.  Her parents merely cleaned the wound and did not seek treatment claiming “we didn’t even think about rabies.”  She was taken to the hospital three weeks later after experiencing the symptoms of rabies. Using a revolutionary technique, doctors at the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital intentionally put her into a coma and began giving her antiviral medications and a type of B-complex folic acid vitamin. The theory was that doctors wanted to suppress the victim’s brain function and allow her immune system to work at full efficiency. The teen has made a near-full recovery.  This “Milwaukee Protocol” has been tried over 30 times with only one other success. 

Some Interesting Rabies Facts

  1. Around 60,000 people a year die from rabies, almost all in Asia or Africa, contracted after being bitten by an animal (mostly from dog bites).
  2. In the six years between 2006 and 2011 there were 12 cases  of rabies in Europe in seven EU countries, of which 6 were imported. Sources of infection included exposure to rabid dog, cat or bat.
  3. In the USA, there are now only one or two cases of rabies in humans annually, most often transmitted by bites from bats.
  4. In 2015 around 5,500 animals in the U.S. were identified as having rabies – nearly all of them wild animals.
  5. Rabies vaccination is the only vaccination required by law in the U.S. to be given to pets (all other are just recommended)

If you liked this IFOD on rabies, read the book “Rant” by Chuck Palahniuk (the guy who wrote “Fight Club” and “Choke”). The main character, named Rant, enjoyed being bitten by spiders and rabid animals and intentionally spread his rabies. Very strange, disturbing, wonderful book. Here’s a summary/review: Publisher’s Weekly Rant Review


  1. Dr Rodney Willoughby, who developed the “Milwaukee Protocol”, is the older brother of my closest childhood friend.

    • No way! That’s amazing.

  2. Just read Doug’s post and I feel a bit sick to my stomach. Twenty seven states (in the U.S.!) permit the harvesting of road kill for food…wow—so take a pass when the opportunity comes around to eat a raccoon, squirrel or deer unless you know a lot about it.

  3. “Don’t eat Road Kill” Approximately 30-40% of raccoons and skunks in Kansas and Missouri are infected with rabies. Special care should be used when handling any wild animals, dead or alive. Passive exposure can occur when handling a dead infected animals. A large percentage of animals infected with rabies do not show aggressive behavior and can be very somnolent. If your dogs spend time in areas that my have an endemic rabies host vectors consider increasing rabies vaccinations. We double our rabies vaccinations on our hunting dogs that are at risk of active exposure.


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