(This page update May 26, 2011)

In medieval Europe, rabies was a deadly threat. In desperation, peasants turned to St. Hubert, the patron saint of rabies victims. Hundreds upon hundreds of people would travel to Liege, Belgium to pray that they would be spared and to pray for those already suffering.

Peasants used iron bars or crosses called the "keys" of St. Hubert to protect themselves. Some would insert the keys into the walls of their houses. Others carried them with them to protect against the rabies curse.

Most peasants though, heated the irons and applied them to wounds left by rabid animals. Surprisingly, if applied immediately, the wound would be sterilized and the virus killed. Of course, this was seen as a miracle. Even when these rituals were denounced by scholars, the peasantry believed in the keys until the late nineteenth century.

Rabies has been a horrifying, tormenting and fatal disease for humans throughout history. It is still feared yet today. Today, rabies can be avoided, prevented and treated. Through education, we can correct the common misconceptions, raise public awareness and promote common sense when dealing with animals and the potential threat of rabies.

Information obtained from
Alabama Rabies Control & Bite Management Manual
and the Illinois Department of Public Health Memorandum on Rabies
By the Illinois Raptor Center: Disclaimer: Please use this and other information about rabies at your own risk.


All warm-blooded mammals, including humans, can get rabies but have different degrees of susceptibility. Birds (those that may eat mammals) have been suspected of having the rabies virus pass through their fecal matter but there has been no documentation of any transmissions to other animals. Reptiles are not infected at all.

Foxes, coyotes, jackals and wolves are most susceptible to rabies. Skunks, raccoons, bats, ferrets, and cattle are highly susceptible.  Note that there has never been a documented case of rabies in raccoons in the state of Illinois (see the IDPH chart below). Dogs, sheep, goats, horses, and subhuman primates are moderately susceptible.

Opossums are considered a low risk for rabies because they are relatively resistant to the virus. Rodents (includes squirrels, rats, mice and chipmunks) and rabbits are also at low risk of becoming infected.

Unlike domestic animals, wild animal species incubate the disease for inconsistent, unknown periods of time. An infected mother can pass it to her unborn young and the young may not develop symptoms for weeks or even months after their birth.

Bats and skunks are noted to be asymptomatic (not showing signs of an illness) for rabies. These animals can shed the virus without ever becoming ill or exhibiting clinical signs. No bat or skunk should ever be considered "rabies free" even if purchased from a pet shop, acquired as a baby, or held for a long period of time!

The public should be warned not to handle wild animals for any reason. Wild animals, especially those that are injured or sick, should be handled by trained wildlife experts. If an animals bites a human, it is not only the human that will suffer. The wild animal must be euthanized and the brain tissue analyzed for rabies virus. There is no "live" rabies testing that is accurate or acceptable.

Because these wild animals have unknown periods of viral shedding in the saliva before and after the onset of symptoms, observation periods are useless.

There are no rabies vaccines approved for use in wildlife. Therefore, it is against the law to vaccinate any wild animal or wild/domestic animal mix (Illinois Animal Control Act Section 30.90 part f).


Humans are bitten by animals when feeding, petting or attempting to catch wild or domestic animals. These bites can be avoided. Here's how..........

* Avoid sick animals or animals with strange behavior. Report them to the local animal control officer.

* Vaccinate all cats, dogs and livestock.

* Never try to pet or pick up wildlife or unfamiliar pets.

* Learn to enjoy wild animals by leaving them alone.

* If you find an orphaned or injured wild animal, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help.

* Do not leave pet food outside or intentionally feed wild mammals. Use animal-proof trash cans. Feeding wildlife can lead to unnatural overpopulation. These concentrated populations can promote obesity, disease and unnatural social behavior.

* Do not keep wild animals as pets. (It is illegal in Illinois to care for or possess wildlife without permits even if you intend to eventually return the animal to the wild!)

* Cap chimneys or any other openings to prevent wild animals from entering your home.

* If you are bitten, scratched or even just come in contact with the saliva of any wild animal or unknown or unvaccinated domestic animal, you should wash the wound or area with soap and water for 10 minutes and call your doctor immediately. Report all animal bites to the local animal control officer - it is required by law.

* If your pet is bitten or scratched by another animal, call your veterinarian for advice on treatment requirements and then call your local animal control officer - it is required by law.

* Do not let children or pets play with dead animals.

* Do not trap and relocate wildlife. Nuisance trapping and relocating can only be done by someone licensed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

* Do not destroy the animal by shooting it in the head.

Do not dispose of animals that have bitten humans or pets. Turn the animal or carcass over to your local animal control officer. This is the law.


According to reports from the Illinois Department of Public Health as of this writing (April 2002), Illinois has observed a low reported incidence of animal rabies since 1984 following an outbreak that started in 1979 and peaked in 1981. 2001 was the 3rd year in a row with no terrestrial animals diagnosed with rabies according to the Illinois Department of Public Health Memorandum dated January 30, 2002. This low incidence could partially be the result of the work of local animal control agencies to enforce the vaccination of cats and dogs, the cooperation of responsible pet owners and public education.

There has not yet been a report of raccoon rabies in Illinois. Other states have not been so lucky. The nation's east coast has had an outbreak for several years. Raccoons were illegally trapped in Florida and illegally taken to West Virginia to restock a hunting area. The people did not know the raccoons were rabid and started the east coast epidemic. As per a memorandum from the Illinois Department of Public Health dated January 30, 2002, "Raccoon strain rabies has been halted in Ohio through the use of an oral bating program. The two closest states (to Illinois) with raccoon strain rabies cases are Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  Please note that as of 2011 there are still no documented cases of raccoon rabies in the state of Illinois (see the IDPH chart below).

Transporting wildlife across state lines is a violation of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lacy Act and it is also illegal to trap wildlife without proper nuisance trapping permits. Getting a permit for trapping requires being tested on knowledge of wildlife natural history and wildlife diseases. Had the West Virginia people obeyed the wildlife laws, this outbreak of rabies would not have happened.

 This chart is from the Illinois Department of Public Health Website at http://www.idph.state.il.us/health/infect/reportdis/rabies/Rabies_Rpt_2012.pdf



Many diseases that overpower wildlife and pets may be mistaken for the rabies virus. One such disease is canine distemper.

Canine distemper frequently infects dogs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks, mink and ferrets. Physical signs of distemper may include one or more of the following: convulsions, nervous twitches, abnormal behavior such as aggression or disorientation, bleeding foot pads, mucous in eyes and nose and paralysis.

Raccoons with distemper are often found curled up in plain view. They may stumble about neighborhoods in broad daylight.

Distemper is always fatal in wildlife, one way or another. Even if they live through the disease they are left with neurological problems or blindness. These handicaps will prevent them from surviving in the wild.

Animals found with distemper need to be humanely euthanized as soon as possible, and the body destroyed so as not to come in contact with other animals.

Although the distemper virus is similar to the measles virus in man, it cannot be passed on to humans. It is a serious disease that passes back and forth between wild and domestic animals. This should be a warning to responsible pet owner that their pets need to have current vaccinations at all times.


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