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What Percentage of Raccoons Have Rabies? Is it Common?

raccoon featured_edbo23, Pixabay

Sadly, it is extremely common for raccoons to have rabies. Unlike other wild animals, raccoons do not have a natural immunity to rabies. They are not a barrier species, meaning they can get rabies and pass it on to humans and other hosts.

While raccoons are not the most common host of rabies, many raccoons do have rabies. In DC, it was found1 that 41.2% of all raccoons tested had this disease. This differs wildly from the bats, cats, and dogs tested, whom all had very low percentages. No bats were found to have rabies, while there were almost as many infected raccoons as healthy raccoons.

It is safe to say that people should be more worried about raccoons with rabies than other wild animals.

Of course, one test done in DC isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the country. But, the CDC tells us that raccoons have one of the highest instances of rabies in the United States—they are the source of 35% of all cases found in humans.

To put that into perspective, think about how many close contacts people have with raccoons vs. animals like cats and dogs. We contact cats and dogs very frequently. However, raccoons are rarely near people. Therefore, a much higher percentage of contacts with raccoons end up with rabies than with dogs or cats.

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Is It Common for Raccoons to Have Rabies?

In the Northeastern United States, along the coast, most animals with rabies will be raccoons. This includes just about every state in the United States that touches the Eastern coast. Raccoons with rabies in this area are extremely common. As many as 50% of the raccoons in this area have rabies.

However, raccoons with rabies in other areas are less common. Skunks are more likely to have rabies than raccoons in Texas, for instance. In many areas, bats are the most common animal with rabies. In these areas, raccoons and skunks are generally less common.

In very tropical areas, the mongoose is the most common animal with rabies. So, it depends on where you live. If you’re in the Eastern United States, it’s probably good to assume that every raccoon has rabies. You should avoid these animals and seek medical attention if you are bitten are scratched.

raccoon teeth
Image Credit : dodo71, Pixabay

Why Do So Many Raccoons Have Rabies?

Raccoons are semi-social so they are likely to come into contact with other raccoons. In more urban areas, this is more common, as food sources tend to be closer together and more compact (aka trashcans and dumpsters).

When raccoons contact each other, rabies can spread. This is one reason bats are also likely to have rabies in certain areas. Their social nature makes the spread easier and faster.

Most warm-blooded animals can carry rabies so it isn’t that raccoons are particularly susceptible to rabies. Instead, they just happen to be social, able to catch rabies, and commonly in contact with people. These traits make them more likely to pass rabies on to other people.

Therefore, raccoons are commonly on the community’s radars as carriers of rabies.

(In comparison, deer are commonly infected with rabies, too. However, very few people get bitten by a deer. The only warm-blooded animal that cannot carry rabies are possums, whose body temperature is too low to support the virus.)

raccoon breaking in to chicken coop
Image Credit: ShutterSparrow, Shutterstock

What Are Signs that a Raccoon Has Rabies?

Raccoons can have rabies without having any symptoms. Therefore, it isn’t always accurate to determine if an animal has rabies based on its symptoms. Plus, many people won’t get a good look at the animal’s behavior before they are bitten, as many are simply surprised by the animal in their trash.

However, raccoons that have advanced stages of the disease will have symptoms. You may be able to see these symptoms if you happen to watch the animal before or after you are bitten.

Sometimes, the animal will act “inebriated.” For instance, the raccoon may stagger around and not seem like it knows what’s happening. Many people describe the animal as acting confused. The animal may seem unaware of noises or ignore movements. The raccoon may seem not to notice you, even if you aren’t hiding.

Often, infected raccoons will stay in the trash even after the healthy raccoons have fled. You may believe that the raccoon is simply being stubborn, but the truth may be that their brains simply aren’t functioning correctly.

Other signs are the very well-known “frothing” at the mouth. The eyes may also appear watery, or the animal may even look like it is crying.

When infected, raccoons will cease to act healthy. Their memory won’t work as it once did and they will usually not groom themselves. Therefore, their fur may appear matted or tangled and they may appear sick or like they have a skin condition.

The animal may also appear madly aggressive. However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the animals are simply lethargic and slow to act. Their throat muscles will constrict, which may cause them to choke randomly. (This is where the “fear of water” myth comes from.)

Eventually, the animal will become paralyzed. However, this doesn’t happen until much later, and the raccoon probably won’t be in your garbage when this occurs. Still, because raccoons become very confused as the condition progresses, you may find a paralyzed raccoon lying in your yard or on the road.

If you see a raccoon acting strangely on your property, it is best not to approach it. Many people incorrectly believe that these animals are injured and may approach them to help. However, this is when they are bitten. When infected, raccoons can become very unpredictable. They may go from not noticing your movements to being extremely aggressive in a fraction of a second.

Instead, we recommend calling animal control right away. Rabies can be deadly without proper treatment. As soon as symptoms begin, it is impossible to treat the condition. Therefore, it should be taken very seriously. Leaving the animal to wander can cause someone else to be bitten.

Raccoon featured,dodo71, Pixabay
Image Credit: dodo71, Pixabay

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In many areas, raccoons are the number one cause of rabies being transmitted to humans. Raccoons are semi-social, meaning they may interact with their own kind. Because they tend to gather at concentrated food sources, especially in urban areas, rabies can easily spread through a population of raccoons.

Of course, raccoons are also drawn towards people, usually, because of the food and trash we leave around. Therefore, it isn’t odd for humans to get attacked by raccoons, leading to rabies transmission.

In some areas, practically 50% of the raccoons may be infected with rabies. Animals with rabies don’t always show symptoms. Therefore, if you’re in the Eastern United States, it may be better to assume all raccoons have rabies. After all, it is often the toss of a coin.


Featured Image Credit: edbo23, Pixabay

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