Rabies transmission without a bite - talk me off the ledge
February 24, 2014 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Hello friends, I have a question about an incident two days ago that I can't get off my mind. I'm hoping that some people knowledgeable about rabies might be able to give me some sound information.

I was, along with two other adults, supervising a crafts project that ten 3rd-graders were working on outside, two days ago. At one point, one of us noticed a mature raccoon sitting near us. We ushered the kids indoors and away from the raccoon.
We called animal control, and they came out and caught the animal. They said they don't test animals when there are no bites or scratches involved, but they can do so if we want them to.

No one was bitten or scratched, and we didn't notice anything else weird about the animal's behavior, other than this was the middle of the day, when mature raccoon's are usually not roaming about (though it isn't totally unusual as it would be with some other nocturnal critters).

None of the kids touched the animal, but a couple of them were handling objects, and we have no idea how long the raccoon had been out there. There was an extended time when we went inside and the raccoon may have drooled on something -- I have NO evidence that that happened though, it's just my paranoid supposition.

So my question is: should I be worried about any of these kids? We had everyone wash hands for an extended time, there were no cuts on any of the kids hands, or anything like that. How possible is it that rabies could be transmitted through an animal drooling on an object, and someone then touching the object? Should I be worried?

Thank you in advance!
posted by Philemon to Science & Nature (19 answers total)
I know that you're scared (ain't NOBODY want to mess around with rabies!), but rest assured that the virus is super-fragile and cannot survive for long outside of the host (cite, the "can I get rabies in any way other than a bite?" section). I'd make REALLY damned sure that the kids did not touch the raccoon - people have contracted the virus through non-bite CONTACT with infected animals - but if they didn't, there's really nothing to worry about.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:17 AM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I had some racoons tear through my tomatoes and I had to toss a few. Then I started googling rabies and scared myself silly. A phone call to the CDC set me straight - no scratch, no transmission.

But I handled tomatoes! That had been bitten and ravaged by racoons!! No. No risk, they told me.

I'm still here 6 years later.

So try not to scare yourself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:20 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Was the racoon doing anything else at all that would lead you to believe it was rabid? Because racoons do sometimes just hang out in the sunlight. And they aren't shy. For a while I had a neighbor who was pretty irresponsible with their trash, and this led to racoons partying near my house all damn day. I had to shout and wave my arms to get them to shoo, and even then, they just ambled off at their own pace to make it clear they didn't really care about my objections.

If the kids were snacking, or there was trash about, maybe it was a food thing.
posted by instead of three wishes at 7:20 AM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

The fact that it was just sitting there and seemed calm also is a good sign it probably wasn't rabid. If it was rabid it'd be pretty aggressive and would just seem...a little crazy. You know, the way you can tell some people are just crazy.

This doesn't sound like it was a rabid raccoon in the first place. It's not unusual for them to be not-shy - the parents of one of my old boyfriends lived out in the woods and they'd sometimes feed the raccoons, and the raccoons would actually come up to the back deck and pry the screen door open and slam it shut to get their attention.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:32 AM on February 24, 2014

If it were possible to catch rabies as easily as it is to catch a cold - by just touching something that the infected creature had touched - a lot of us would be a whole lot deader than we are.
posted by rtha at 7:34 AM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Pasteur created the first rabies vaccine by exposing the virus to air which weakens it considerably.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:40 AM on February 24, 2014

No, you should not be worried. But you don't have to believe me, you can believe the CDC (from the "Nonbite exposures" section):

Nonbite exposures from animals very rarely cause rabies….The contamination of open wounds or abrasions (including scratches) or mucous membranes with saliva or other potentially infectious material (e.g., neural tissue) from a rabid animal also constitutes a nonbite exposure. Rabies virus is inactivated by desiccation, ultraviolet irradiation, and other factors and does not persist in the environment. In general, if the suspect material is dry, the virus can be considered noninfectious.

If your mind is already working to find some way that the raccoon could have snuck saliva into a child's open wound or onto their mucous membrane without you noticing, I'd say you need to check your anxiety levels. You're thinking about the needle in a haystack inside another haystack.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:47 AM on February 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

If you could get rabies this way everyone in the US who takes out trash cans would be dead by now.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:37 AM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, raccoons in urban or suburban areas are pretty used to humans, so they're not going to run away the second they see a bunch of people.

If it helps, I had an entire raccoon family in my apartment a few years ago and neither I nor the cats got rabies.
posted by jeather at 8:37 AM on February 24, 2014

Well, is everyone up-to-date on their rabies vaccines? If so, nothing to worry about! If not, why not get vaccinated for (probably unnecessary) peace of mind now as well as safety in the future? (I believe the rabies vaccine is unusual in that it is effective even after exposure.)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:40 AM on February 24, 2014

Nthing that there is virtually no risk here if you were not physically touched by the animal. And yeah, raccoons sometimes hang out where there might be treats, and every trash can in every suburban or rural town has had raccoons all over it every night and rabies is pretty rare.

Well, is everyone up-to-date on their rabies vaccines? If so, nothing to worry about! If not, why not get vaccinated for (probably unnecessary) peace of mind now as well as safety in the future? (I believe the rabies vaccine is unusual in that it is effective even after exposure.)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 1:40 PM on February 24 [+] [!]

Rabies vaccinations are not routine in the US, I doubt that you could even get it without probable cause to think you had been exposed. I've also heard, anecdotally, that it is both expensive and painful, or at least a pain.
posted by epanalepsis at 8:53 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rabies is a smart virus. It inhibits the desire to drink water to concentrate the virus in the saliva, and infects the host's brain in order to make it crazed, and violent in hopes that the host will bite someone and pass along the virus. So if the raccoon was behaving normally I would think you are safe.
posted by Gungho at 9:06 AM on February 24, 2014

You might ease your mind a bit by searching the local newspaper or health department website to see how many rabies cases there have been in your county or city recently.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:32 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rabies post-exposure shots are very expensive, and include immunoglobulin shots. And even if you've had them before, you have to get some more if you're exposed again. They aren't any more painful than any other shot, in my experience. They're also not handed out like candy.

You all are fine, by the way. The virus is destroyed by UV light and drying, too, as I recall. I understand the primal, ancient panic re:rabies, but nothing about your encounter would constitute exposure. Call a doctor you trust to get their reassurance, if it helps.

Also, it may be different where you are - but in my locale, Animal Control is NOT laidback about possible rabies exposure. They don't blow off possible exposures, and actually err on the side of understandable paranoia.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:41 AM on February 24, 2014

If you want more information, call your local health department and figure out what the current rate of rabies infections in raccoons are in your area.

My mom woke up in a room with a bat flying around (being chased by her cats). She chatted with the county rabies guy and directed her to an ER that could start the vaccine series. Bat bites can be smaller than a paper cut and she is a heavy sleeper, and that species of bat is a known carrier in our county. She was fairly panicked and this guy had lots of facts, specific knowledge and a very calming voice.
posted by fontophilic at 9:43 AM on February 24, 2014

Thank you all, so much, for taking the time to respond. I'm not usually over-anxious about routine matters of safety, but in this case I was responsible for several children which wound me up a bit more about this incident. One of the parents, for what it's worth, mentioned that the raccoon did seem to have a staggering, abnormal, gait, and seemed unwell. We didn't have any food or drink with us, either. We did all that inside the house.

Still, I am close to certain that none of the children touched the animal; they were in small groups with one parent each working on a particular piece of a craft project together, the entire time, so there really wasn't any unsupervised time at all.

I don't think I was ever going to round up the ten children for a painful set of shots against odds so remote that they're vanishingly close to zero, given no contact with the animal, but I was seeking some reassurance on this point.

Thank you all again. I'm especially grateful for the secondary material some of you have pointed me to.
posted by Philemon at 10:20 AM on February 24, 2014

The raccoon could have been old, had cancer, an injury, or any number of other things that would make it both seem unwell and be a little desperate - enough to be out in broad daylight looking for scraps.

Also memories are notoriously inaccurate, and if the other mom is as worried as you, she may be mis-remembering.

RadioLab did a fascinating piece on Rabies, with the story focused around a girl in the mid-west who survived it. They take a lot of time explaining how the virus transfers, how it works, etc.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:19 PM on February 24, 2014

I had a weird event when I was doing evening yard work last fall. Apparently, a raccoon came by and drank out of my water glass right before I did, then split. My kid saw it happen. I called my GP, and she told me to call County Health, and they were able to put me at ease (no known rabies in raccoons in our county, just bats and skunks. No weird behavior from the raccoon. Apparently, by the time they are contagious the symptoms are extreme and their behavior quite bizarre). County Health, YMMV.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:03 PM on February 24, 2014

Not to freak you out again when everyone else has just gotten you calmed down about rabies, but IMO raccoon roundworm is a more legitimate concern. "The raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, is increasingly recognized as a cause of serious or fatal larva migrans disease in humans and animals." The good news is that cases of infection in humans are few and far between, but the bad news is that it can be very serious or fatal. Don't know what to tell you to do now, except to keep an eye out for more raccoons and especially anything that looks like raccoon poop.
posted by storminator7 at 10:04 PM on February 24, 2014

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