Rabies in Pennsylvania

What is Rabies?
Rabies is a virus of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) that can affect any mammal. Rabies is widespread throughout Pennsylvania.

What are the signs of Rabies?

  • Rabies signs are grouped into two forms known as either the “Furious” form of rabies or the “Paralytic” (or “Dumb” form).
  • An animal may show signs of only one type or progress from one form to the other.
  • Some animals will show no signs of rabies other than death
  • The “Furious” form of rabies is more familiar to most people. Signs may include: aggression, loss of fear, daytime activity by nocturnal species, attraction to noise and human activity, excess vocalization, dilated pupils, difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite, restlessness, and/or biting at objects and other animals. Animals may or may not drool.
  • The “Paralytic” form of rabies may include symptoms such as: decreased activity, incoordination, hind limb weakness, acting “dull.” Cats may meow excessively. As the disease progresses, the animal may drop its lower jaw, drool, be unable to swallow, become paralyzed and finally die.
  • Note: It is important to realize that not all animals show every sign. Most neurological or behavioral abnormalities could potentially be rabies.
Incubation Period
  • This is the period of time from the exposure to rabies virus until the animal finally becomes sick and/or acts differently and is capable of infecting other animals or people.
  • The incubation period can be as short as two weeks or in very rare cases as long as one year.
  • During the incubation period, the animal cannot transmit rabies and its behavior remains normal.
  • During the incubation period, there may be time for the vaccine to prevent the animal from developing disease and prevent it from shedding or transmitting virus.

CAUTION: mammals may have virus in their saliva and be able to transmit virus a short period of time before clinical signs start.

  • Rabies in humans is a preventable disease if exposure is recognized and treatment is begun in a timely manner.
  • Exposure to rabies may occur by any of the following (other possible routes of exposure exist but are rare):
  • A direct bite from a contagious rabid mammal
  • A scratch from a rabid mammal that breaks the skin
  • Saliva or neural tissue from a contagious rabid animal contacting an open wound or break in the skin.
  • Saliva or neural tissue from a contagious rabid animal contacting mucus membranes such as in the eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Virus can survive on inanimate objects for as long as it takes for the saliva to completely dry. Sunlight will kill the virus, freezing and moisture can help preserve it. The virus is killed by most disinfectants.
  • There has never been a documented case of rabies transmitted to humans from an inanimate object.
  • Immediately washing the bite or scratch with soap and water can greatly reduce the risk of rabies.
  • Bats continue to be the number one cause of human rabies cases in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control now recommends that every bat found inside a building or home be tested for rabies if there was possible human contact (e.g. if people were sleeping in the room). This is because it is possible to be bitten by a bat and not even know it.
What happens if a person thinks they have encountered a rabid animal or have been bitten by a mammal?
  • The first thing to understand is how a person gets rabies from an animal. See section above on exposure and remember only mammals can transmit rabies.
  • By law, all animal bites in PA must be reported by the medical professional to the PA Department of Health.
  • If the person has been bitten, scratched or otherwise exposed to saliva by a mammal that is suspected of having rabies, the animal must be tested for rabies. The only way to test for rabies is to euthanize the animal and have it submitted to an approved laboratory for rabies testing (see section “Submitting Animals for Rabies Testing”). The Department of Health should be notified by the medical professional and consulted for advice on whether or not the exposed person should start receiving rabies treatment.
  • If a person has been bitten by a mammal which is not suspected of having rabies, then the animal must be observed for a period of time during which the animal is prevented from exposing other people or animals. The Department of Health must be notified by the medical professional and will provide advice on how to proceed
  • If the animal is clinically normal (not showing any signs of rabies) by the end of the observation period then it was very unlikely to have had rabies in its saliva on the day it bit the person and it will be released. If the animal shows signs of rabies or dies before the observation period is up, it should be submitted for rabies testing. In some situations, such as when the mammal is a wild animal, euthanasia may be preferred over a period of observation.
  • If a mammal that was showing signs of rabies has bitten or exposed a person then the animal must immediately be euthanized and submitted for rabies testing. The Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture should both be notified.
  • What if the animal runs away? If a human has been bitten or scratched by a mammal, either domestic or wild, but the animal is not available for observation or testing, seek medical assistance. The medical professional must notify the county or local Department of Health office.
What happens to my pet or other domestic mammal if it is bitten or scratched by a rabid animal?
  • By PDA regulations, a domestic animal that is exposed to a rabid animal must be quarantined.
  • Length of quarantine depends on rabies vaccination status of the exposed domestic animal. If the domestic animal is unvaccinated (or its vaccination status has expired) at the time of exposure to a rabid animal, a 180-day quarantine will be imposed. If the domestic animal that was exposed to a rabid animal was legally vaccinated for rabies and the vaccination status was current at the time of exposure, 90-day quarantine will be imposed.
  • The PA Department of Agriculture (PDA) will decide the appropriate quarantine duration and will manage the quarantines.
  • Post-exposure vaccination of the exposed animal is permitted by PDA.
  • PDA will NOT seize or euthanize your pet or domestic animals for being exposed to rabies!
  • However, in some circumstances, euthanasia of the exposed domestic animal may be recommended.

What does it mean for my pet to be quarantined?

  • The pet must be under the owner’s control and on his property during the period of quarantine. The owner must take precaution to prevent exposure to other people and animals during this time.
  • A quarantine sign will be posted by PDA. It is unlawful to remove a quarantine sign.
Submitting Animals for Rabies Testing
  • If the suspect is a wild mammal; contact the PA Game Commission (PGC) for help in capturing and submitting the animal. See the blue pages of your phone book for the number of your local PGC office or go to www.pgc.state.pa.us
  • If the suspect is a domestic mammal, then consult your veterinarian for help in euthanizing and submitting the animal.
  • You may also call your local PDA Regional office for information on submitting mammals for rabies testing. See www.agriculture.state.pa.us to find the appropriate contact information for the regional office that covers your area.
  • Detailed information on submission is available on the PADLS web site
How can you prevent Rabies?

Vaccination of domestic mammals for rabies is very effective.

Vaccination is recommended for all species for which there is an approved rabies vaccine. (Discuss vaccination of species for which there is not an approved rabies vaccine with your veterinarian).

  • By PA law, dogs and cats must be vaccinated for rabies by 3 months of age and vaccination must be kept up to date.
  • Do not handle wildlife.


Links for additional rabies information:

What to do?

Domestic animal with current rabies vaccination exposed to known rabid animal

  • 90 day Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) quarantine to owner’s property (may be given rabies booster/s)

Domestic animal with expired rabies vaccination exposed to known rabid animal

  • 180 day PDA quarantine to owner’s property (may be given rabies booster/s)

Domestic animal with no known history of rabies vaccination exposed to known rabid animal

  • Euthanasia recommended
    180 day PDA quarantine to owner’s property (may be given rabies booster/s)

Domestic animal of any vaccination status believed by the veterinarian to have been exposed to rabies e.g. dog with bite wounds, seen in fight with raccoon during the day, but raccoon not caught for testing

  • Veterinary practitioner encouraged to request PDA 90/180 day quarantine to owner’s property (may be given rabies booster/s)
    Euthanasia, if individual situation warrants sufficient health concern (e.g. completely unvaccinated pet with extensive wounds)

Domestic animal with bite of unknown origin

  • Veterinary practitioner may request PDA quarantine at his/her discretion, based on the practitioner’s assessment of the risk of rabies exposure as well as the risk of development of actual disease in that domestic animal.
  • Rabies booster/s may be given to improve immune response against the potential rabies exposure

Domestic animal, suspected of having rabies, human exposure

  • Report to PDA Regional Office
  • Immediate euthanasia and testing

Domestic animal, suspected of having rabies, no human exposure

  • Must be reported to PDA Regional Office
  • Euthanasia and testing
  • PDA quarantine until rabies concerns dispelled or death and testing

Domestic animal, not suspected of having rabies, that bites a person

  • Must be kept confined for 10 days for observation—at home or clinic
  • If the animal is euthanized or dies during the 10 days: test for rabies
  • Report the bite to the health department
  • Person who is bitten should contact physician or health department

Domestic animal, not suspected of having rabies, that bites a domestic animal

  • Recommend 10 day confinement and observation
  • Test for rabies if the biting animal dies during the 10 days

Wild animal showing abnormal behavior indicative of rabies

  • Call the Pennsylvania Game Commission
  • If humans/domestic animals in danger, call police or animal control

Understanding Rabies Quarantines for Veterinary Clinics

A great deal of confusion exists about the quarantines that are required by law after known or suspected exposure of a domestic mammal to rabies or after a mammal bites a human. The following should clarify the differences. Please note that this document is based on PDA regulations which may differ from the recommendations in the Compendium. In the Commonwealth of PA, PA regulations must be followed.

A key concept in understanding rabies quarantines relates to whether the animal was bitten or was the biter.


The animal that bit the person will either be confined and observed for at least 10 days or be euthanized and tested for rabies.

  • If the biter is a domestic, dog, cat or ferret, it can be confined and observed at its home for 10 days. Confidence in keeping the dog, cat or ferret for observation (vs. euthanasia for immediate testing) is enhanced if the bite was provoked (if someone stepped on its tail, for example).
  • What is the rationale for the 10-day period of confinement for dogs, cats or ferrets? If the biter was a dog, cat or ferret and it had rabies virus in its saliva when it did the biting, research shows that it should die or show clinical signs of rabies within 10 days of the bite (rare exceptions may exist).
  • If the biter is any other kind of mammal other then a dog, cat or ferret, research has not well defined the time frame from when shedding of virus starts until obvious clinical signs develop. Consult the Department of Health for their recommendations.
  • If biter is showing clinical signs consistent with rabies, see Number III. Different rules apply!

The pet that has been bitten by a confirmed or suspected rabid mammal will either be (1) euthanized, or (2) quarantined for 90 days if current on rabies vaccination, or (3) quarantined for 180 days if unvaccinated for rabies. There are no other options. There are NO ten-day quarantines for animals bitten by a confirmed or suspected rabid animal. PDA Regional staff will make the decision as to the appropriate length of quarantine to apply in each case.

The quarantine reflects the period of time it could take for the bitten (exposed) mammal to develop disease. In mammals, the incubation period for rabies can be as short as two weeks or as long as several months, however there are rare reports of much longer incubation periods. During quarantine, the exposed animal is confined and observed to see if certain behaviors develop. Clinical signs may suggest rabies, but the only definitive diagnosis is made in the laboratory.

The bitten mammal is not infectious unless the rabies virus successfully travels from the bite site to the animal’s brain and salivary glands at which time they may have virus in their saliva. During the time the virus is traveling from the bite site, the animal does not have virus in its saliva and is therefore not able to transmit rabies.

If an animal’s rabies vaccination has expired, it is considered by Pennsylvania State Law to be unvaccinated.

  • Animals current on rabies vaccination: if the pet or animal exposed to rabies is current on its rabies vaccination, it will be quarantined by the Department of Agriculture for 90 days. (Note: The Compendium for Rabies Control recommends 45 days, but PA Law requires 90 days). This quarantine is a safeguard because no vaccination provides 100% guaranteed protection. Note: It is generally accepted that whenever a vaccinated animal is bitten, it should be immediately revaccinated for rabies. It is up to the veterinary clinician to determine the best post-exposure protocol for each case.
  • Unvaccinated Animals: when a rabid animal bites a domestic animal or pet that has never been vaccinated for rabies, euthanasia is the safest option. If the owner is unwilling to do this, the Department of Agriculture will quarantine this animal to its home for 180 days. Risk of quarantine should be evaluated; for example: Does the home have small children? Was post-exposure vaccination administered in a timely fashion? Note: protocols exist for vaccinating post-exposure. See JAVMA article “Post-exposure rabies prophylaxis protocol for domestic animals and epidemiologic characteristics of rabies vaccination failures in Texas: 1995-1999”, Pamela J. Wilson, Med, and Keith A. Clark, DVM, PhD, JAVMA, February 15, 2001. This article is available from the Regional PDA office if you don’t have a copy. It is up to the veterinary clinician to determine the best post-exposure protocol for each case.
  • Animals with expired vaccination status: if the rabies vaccination has expired, the animal is considered by PA regulations to be unvaccinated and for quarantine purposes will be treated the same as an unvaccinated animal. See number 2 above. Consider previous vaccination history when determining appropriate post-exposure vaccination protocol.
  • Report any domestic animal showing clinical signs of rabies to PDA.
  • If the veterinarian determines that the biter is exhibiting clinical signs consistent with rabies and it has bitten or otherwise exposed a human, then by law it must be euthanized and tested for rabies. No quarantine applies. This applies to both domestic and wild animals.
  • If the domestic animal is showing clinical signs consistent with rabies and did not bite a human, the law mandates quarantine. It is kept quarantined until the clinical signs of rabies have resolved. The law does not mandate euthanasia. If the domestic animal showing signs of rabies had exposed another animal and dies within 10 days after the biting or exposure incident, it must be tested for rabies.
  • Quarantining any animal showing clinical signs of rabies is strongly discouraged due to risk to the family members and other pets. Euthanasia and testing is a safer option.

PLEASE NOTE: regardless of the type of rabies quarantine (biter or bitten, vaccinated or unvaccinated), any animal that dies for any reason during that quarantine period should be submitted to an official laboratory for rabies testing.

Rabies Testing:
Rabies testing is a free service offered to the public. If the specimen is to be sent to the laboratory from our office, please submit only the head, labeled, double-bagged and kept cool (not frozen). Please use the appropriate form for human exposure vs. non-human exposure. If sending directly to the labs, keep in mind that Lionville will only accept small heads and will not take carcasses. See appropriate laboratory web site for submission information or contact your Regional PDA office.


  • Contact your regional PA Department of Agriculture office for questions about domestic animals at http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us
  • Contact your regional PA Game Commission office for questions about wildlife at http://www.pgc.state.pa.us/pgc/site
  • Contact the PA Department of Health for questions concerning people at 1-877-PAHEALTH or http://www.health.state.pa.us
  • Live animals are not accepted for rabies testing. Before trapping live animals for any reason, please read the PA Game Commission's information on trapping animals at:
Specimens for Rabies Testing:

Acceptable Specimens for Rabies Testing:

  • . Whole Carcasses
  • . Animal Heads
  • . Animal Brains
  • . Bats (must be intact for identification)

Unacceptable Specimens for Rabies Testing:

  • . Any live animal or bat (Euthanasia and decapitation, if necessary, must be performed by the local veterinarian at the submitter’s expense)

Specimens must be chilled, but not frozen, as soon as possible after death. Care must be taken to minimize damage to the animal head prior to submission to the laboratory.

Transportation of Specimens toPVL:


  • . Hand delivery of specimens for rabies testing to PVL between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm weekdays is recommended when possible.
  • . A refrigerator is available for after-hour submissions.
  • . Specimens other than whole large livestock carcasses being hand delivered must be ina waterproof container.
  • . If plastic bags are used when delivering specimens, double bagging is necessary to prevent puncture by claws, teeth or bone fragments.


  • . The PA Department of Agriculture (PDA) has a contract with a courier service to carry samples and smaller animal carcasses for rabies testing.
    (Account #PAVETE23)
    Calls made to the courier service Monday-Thursday before noon will be picked up the same day. Calls made to the courier service after noon will be picked up the following business day.
  • . When using the courier services, federal packing regulations apply. If leakage occurs during shipment, the package may be rejected.
  • . The courier can refuse packages if not packaged properly.
  • . There is a charge to use the courier service to ship a specimen to PVL (usually around $25). You will be billed by PVL, not the courier service.

*NOTE: Only PVL has a contract with the current courier service. The Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) in Lionville does not have the same contracts and may have different shipping policies. Please contact PA DOH laboratory in Lionville at 610-280-3464 with inquiries regarding shipping to that lab.
Specimens must be accompanied by a Rabies Submission Form. The submission form must be filled out completely.

Specimen Packaging:

  • . Specimens must be packaged in at least two plastic bags tightly closed to insure a leak proof seal.
  • . The bagged specimen is then put into a leak-proof, unbreakable, insulated container along with some type of refrigeration.
  • . Do not use ice cubes, crushed ice, block ice, snow or dryice.
  • . Include absorbent packing material adequate enough to absorb all fluids in the event of leakage.
  • . NEVER ship on a Friday or the day before a government/postal holiday. The lab will not be staffed to receive samples.
  • . Do not wrap submission forms around samples: If the sample leaks, the form may be unreadable. Enclose the submission forms for all samples in a single zip-lock bag and place it on top of the samples.
  • . Label the outside of the box clearly. Remove old conflicting labels that could confuse delivery.
  • . Mark packages with a Diagnostic Specimen label on the outside of the box.
  • . Include your return address. This is one way to track packages received by the laboratory.
  • . Do not ship in unprotected Styrofoam containers: These break easily if squeezed or dropped. Styrofoam within a cardboard box is recommended.
Testing and Results:
  • . If further diagnostic work is to follow a negative rabies test, the laboratory must be informed at the time of submission.
    Please Note: For the safety of laboratory personnel, no additional tests (except for chronic wasting disease or scrapie) will be performed on specimens following a positive rabies test.
  • . No part of any animal submitted for rabies testing will be returned, regardless of the test result.
  • . A Fluorescent Antibody test will be performed on all rabies suspect cases to be tested at PVL.
  • . Negative Results:
    • . The submitting agent will be notified of negative results by telephone directly from the laboratory.
    • . A printed report will also be sent in the mail.
  • . Positive Results:
    • . The PDA Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services in Harrisburg and the regional or local Department of Health are notified.
    • . PDA regional staff will contact submitters in the event of a positive test and will, if necessary, administer the quarantine of exposed domestic animals.