Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Understanding Rabies & How to Protect Your Pet

Medical professional holding a vaccination labeled "Rabies"

If your pet is not current on vaccinations, including rabies, contact your family veterinarian to set up an appointment. 

If your pet was bitten by a wild or stray animal, contact your family veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (651.201.6808) regarding rabies testing. If your community has an animal control office, contact them for help in safely capturing the wild or stray animal for rabies testing.  


Rabies is a viral infection caused by a lyssavirus that affects the mammalian nervous system. Infection is typically transmitted via saliva of an infected animal, such as a bite.

Skunk in grassy area.

Common Animals Affected 

While any mammal, including humans, can become infected with rabies virus, there are certain mammals more commonly identified as succumbing to infection. 

Common wildlife affected by rabies virus infection include: 

  • Skunks 
  • Bats 
  • Raccoons 
  • Foxes
  • Bobcats

Common domestic species affected by rabies infection include:  

  • Cats 
  • Dogs 
  • Horses 
  • Cattle 
  • Llamas
  • Sheep
  • Goats 
Rabies bar graph from the Minnesota Department of Health with a list of animals tested for rabies and the percent of animals tested negative, positive, or untestable. Skunks had the highest percentage of positive tests, followed by cattle, bats, foxes, and horses.

Image Credit: Rabies Statistics – MN Dept. of Health (state.mn.us)

What is the Likelihood of Being Exposed? 

In areas of the world where there are large populations of unowned, unvaccinated, stray dogs and cats, higher rates of human death by rabies are reported in those countries. The most recent case of human death from rabies infection in Minnesota was 2021; in that case, an elderly man was bitten by a bat in his bed. However, his was an unusual circumstance of failed immune response to post-exposure rabies prophylaxis (PEP) caused by the man’s co-morbidities (diabetes, circulatory compromise, and renal disease). The man succumbed to the infection six months post-bite and PEP injections. 

There are annual rabies deaths of animals (domestic and wildlife) in Minnesota, with the raccoon being the most common carrier in the state. In March 2024, a cow was diagnosed with rabies, with presumed exposure to a skunk that had recently been killed on the farm property. Current information about rabies prevalence in the state of Minnesota can be accessed here 

An assortment of test tubes with one pulled out that is labeled "Rabies +"

How Rabies Affects the Body 

Once a mammal is bitten, the rabies virus migrates along nerves to the brain. The virus spreads rapidly within the brain, causing inflammation. Symptoms then progress in stages: 

  • First Stage
    • Fever and weakness 
  • Second Stage
    • Ataxia (Wobbly gait) and unusual behaviors
      • Some animals display symptoms commonly known as the “furious phase” – confusion, biting, and snarling.
      • Other animals display opposite symptoms known as the “somnolent form” – sleepiness or dullness (staring at wall, head-pressing against the wall) 
  • Third Stage 
    • Eventually, within days, the infection progresses to the “paralytic” phase – where the individual experiences paralysis, especially in the face and throat muscles. This causes difficulty swallowing, excessive drooling, and the inability to speak or breathe properly.

Diagnosis & Treatment  

Rabies diagnosis is made with special testing (direct fluorescent antibody test or DFA) that must be performed in a state veterinary diagnostic laboratory using brain tissue from the suspect animal. 

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being. Because there is no effective, widespread treatment, and because infection results in death, most U.S. states have laws mandating vaccination. The vaccination (both for humans and animals) is highly effective. In Minnesota, there are species-specific rabies vaccines for dogs, cats, ferrets, cattle, sheep, horses, other domestic and wildlife animals, and human beings. Rabies vaccination certificates for animals can only be signed and issued by a licensed veterinarian. 

Dogs aggressively in each other's faces while one is lying on the ground with the other above it.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Pet Was Exposed to an Animal with Rabies 

If you suspect your pet may have been bitten by (or otherwise exposed directly to) a wild animal (especially bat, skunk, racoon, fox or bobcat), it is important to promptly seek veterinary attention. Not only does the bite wound typically require medical care and prescription medication, but a myriad of protocols governed by Minnesota law must be followed regarding vaccination booster or potential quarantine. In specific circumstances, when wildlife or stray animals are involved, submission of the animal’s brain to the veterinary diagnostic laboratory may be required. 

Here are a few common examples of what will happen next: 

  • Vaccinated pet 
    • If a properly vaccinated pet was known to be bitten by a wild animal, the following will likely occur:
      • A vaccine booster may be administered by the veterinarian 
      • The pet is quarantined at home for a specific period (typically 10 days) to monitor for the emergence of illness, especially neurologic signs as detailed above.  
      • If a vaccinated dog, cat, or ferret bites a human being, the pet may be confined for 10 days at the owner’s house 
  • Unvaccinated pet
    • If the dog, cat, or ferret is not vaccinated against rabies, then the pet must be confined for 10 days at a veterinary clinic or other authorized monitoring facility

In either situation, if a quarantined pet develops signs of rabies, the pet must be euthanized and submitted for rabies testing at the state veterinary diagnostic laboratory. The same process is followed if the pet dies or is otherwise euthanized during the quarantine period.  

Note that stray pets with no owner identification have different guidelines – one more reason to be certain to always have control of your pet and microchip identification!  

A vaccination needle with a dog in the background.

The best way to protect your pets is to make sure they are vaccinated against rabies. If your pet is not up to date on vaccinations or if you have any questions about the rabies vaccination, consult with your family veterinarian. To learn more about rabies, visit the Minnesota Boat of Animal Health’s website or the Minnesota Department of Health’s website for the most up-to-date information and additional resources for both pet parents and health professionals. 

More Reading: 

Rabies | Minnesota Board of Animal Health (state.mn.us) 

Rabies Statistics – MN Dept. of Health (state.mn.us)

Beth Rausch, DVM, MPH 

Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet

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