About Rabies

Page last updated 3/14/2024.

Rabies is a preventable viral disease that is almost always fatal once symptoms develop. It can spread to people and pets if they are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal. Only mammals, including humans, can get rabies. Birds, reptiles, and fish cannot get rabies.

In the United States, rabies is mostly found in wild animals like bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. In California, rabies is mostly found in bats and skunks. Rabies in pet dogs and cats is possible, but less common because many pet animals are vaccinated against rabies. All dogs in California are required to be vaccinated against rabies.

Rabies is a virus usually spread through a bite or scratch from an infected animal. Although rare, people can also get rabies if the saliva or brain/nervous system tissue of a rabid animal gets into a fresh scratch or break in your skin, or is introduced to your mucous membranes (e.g., eyes, mouth, or nose).

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system. If a person does not receive prompt and appropriate medical care after a potential rabies exposure, and before symptoms start, the virus can cause disease in the brain, ultimately resulting in death.

Rabies can be prevented by vaccinating pets and preventing bites from wild or unfamiliar animals.

If you were bitten or scratched by an animal that can spread rabies, or have had direct contact with a bat, wash the wound and/or area thoroughly with soap and warm water. Then, consult your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Your healthcare provider will decide if you need post-exposure treatment, possibly in consultation with the local health department. If treatment is needed, this should begin as soon as possible.

Bats test positive for rabies more frequently than any other animal in San Diego County. Therefore, any direct, skin-to-bat contact should be reported to and discussed with a healthcare provider, in consultation with the local health department (Epidemiology Unit). Bites and scratches from bats are extremely small and may not be noticeable. Sleeping in the same room as a bat also presents a potential risk.

In addition to bats, bites or scratches from wild, carnivorous mammals (e.g., skunks, raccoons, coyotes, or foxes) are considered high-risk exposures. Low-risk exposures include bites or scratches from small rodents (e.g., mice, rats, squirrels, gophers, chipmunks, etc.) or lagomorphs (e.g., rabbits).

The Epidemiology Unit is available for consultation during business hours at 619-692-8499 and after hours at 858-565-5255. The resources below may answer more of your questions about rabies. For more information, contact the Epidemiology Unit at 619-692-8499 or send us an e-mail.


County of San Diego

  • Rabies Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) Algorithm: This algorithm is intended to assist healthcare providers and animal health professionals with risk assessment following a potential exposure to rabies. It is not intended to address all possible scenarios. The decision to administer rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is ultimately a joint decision between the patient and their healthcare provider.