By M. Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist
In medieval times the madness was called “The Cober.” There was even a patron saint, Saint Hubert, for its victims. Cober victims could pray at his shrine, or could employ iron bars or crosses, known as the “keys” of St. Hubert. These iron keys were heated red hot, and applied to wounds left by a biting animal.
Rabies is also called hydrophobia in humans, which means literally “fear of water” due to the painful and involuntary spasms caused by attempts to drink, or sometimes by the sight or sound of water. This fear of water seems not to occur in rabid animals; hence hydrophobia applies only to rabies in humans. Technically classified as a rhabdovirus, rabies is transmitted by the bite, or by exposure of fresh wounds to the saliva of an infected animal.
Interestingly, opossums are relatively resistant to rabies and are considered a low risk for infection. Experiments have shown that 50 thousand times the dose is required to infect an opossum than is required to infect a fox. Rodents, rabbits, and white-tailed deer are also considered low risk for contracting and transmitting the disease.
The risk from rabies in the U.S. is generally very low, and in recent years the incidence of human rabies has declined markedly as it has decreased in domesticated animals. To reduce your risk, especially to folks living in rural areas or in close proximity to wildlife, certain cautionary measures can be followed.
Do not keep wild animals as pets, or try to raise baby wild animals. Not only do they not make very good pets and the survival rate of orphaned wildlife is low, but it is against Alabama law to keep wildlife or to have any canine or feline for which there is no approved rabies vaccine. Be very careful in feeding wild mammals, particularly raccoons, and attracting them to your house. Artificial feeding is not only unhealthy for the animals, but it increases the potential exposure to the disease and might attract a rabid mammal to your house. Alabama law requires reporting of anyone bitten by an animal.