Rabies Vector Species - How to Tell

In some states, the raccoon is classified as a rabies vector species (RVS), which means it's an animal that can carry and transmit rabies. Technically, any mammal can do so, but raccoons are a higher risk. Thus, the animal is subject to certain laws by state. How to tell if a raccoon is sick - learn the signs of a rabid raccoon - basically, it looks sick.

Here are the top 5 signs of a rabid raccoon:
1) Difficulty walking - fully or partially paralyzed hind legs, or walking in circles.
2) Looks confused, disoriented, slow. A healthy raccoon will be doing something purposeful, and it'll look alert.
3) Makes crazy noises - most healthy raccoons chatter to each other, or make a real racket when fighting or mating, but usually when they're foraging about, they aren't making crazy noises.
4) Foaming at the mouth - if you're close enough to see this, get away!
5) Just plain looks sick - shouldn't be too hard to tell. Raccoons can contract a variety of diseases, including distemper, but in no cases should you risk contact with a raccoon.

Here are some behaviors exhibited by BOTH healthy and rabid raccoons:
1) Out during the daytime - totally normal. However, still exercise caution.
2) No fear of humans - raccoons have become urban animals like squirrels. Many healthy raccoons have zero fear of people.

What if a raccoon is just plain aggressive? That's probably not a useful sign to tell if a raccoon has rabies. While most raccoons don't bother people directly, sometimes they do, but that doesn't mean it is rabid.  Most of the time they do ignore people, or just kind of look at you and move on - unless they've been fed by people! In that case, they might learn to harass people in hopes of getting more food. Sick or not, that's a bad thing that might require raccoon removal. Click here for my full guide on raccoon trapping tips.

Here is a response about raccoon relocation and concerns regarding a sick raccoon that I received from one wildlife expert who wrote to me:

"I just read your web site about raccoons. I don't know where you are located, but I am in Upstate New York. Our Dept of Environ. Conservation licenses us and regulates all wildlife in our care. Here in New York, rehabbers who take in rabies vector species, such as skunks, raccoons, and bats, must have additional training, specialized caging, and a series of three pre-exposure rabies vaccinations before handling any RVS. The vaccinations run around $600.00. This is at the expense of the rehabber of course. Then your facility must be inspected by the USDA. A separate log must be kept for each RVS. All RVS must be released back into the county they came from and the rehabber must be registered with the Health Dept. of each county he/she receives RVS from. The public is not allowed to transport any RVS, therefore the rehabber must drive to the initial site of where the RVS was found to pick them up and later release them. A rehabber in my area was caught two years ago accepting baby coons from someone who drove them to her. Her license was revoked for two years and she had to go through a hearing and respond to the charges brought against her. Needless to say, in a State of more than 17 million people there are fewer than 30 RVS licensed rehabbers in the entire state that can take RVS. Last year I got calls about baby coons from Queens in NY City. That is more than 6 hours one way away from where I live and I surely am not registered in that county. I have all I can do to respond to the calls from my own county. I LOVED your web site. It is well done and very informative. Please let people know however, that there might not be any rehabbers in their area that can accept RVS. In the far western part of NY there are no RVS rehabbers in 8 joining counties. I have bookmarked your site and will surely pass it on to everyone I know with raccoons in their attics. Where are you? I know each state has their own laws. I do believe that there are some areas that do not allow any rehabber to take RVS at all for any reason. Keep up the good work. You are doing a great job at educating the public."

The above was a good email about raccoons and rabies. You can check out my how to catch raccoons page for email examples of raccoon situations from my website readers. More rabies discussion below:

"This time of year we are all preparing for baby season. We are all budgeting our purchases towards the supplies we know we will need. This Rabies Detection Kit sounds wonderful, yes. But please ask yourself; why is there no endorsement, no clinical testing done, no approval as yet from any organization or government agency? Perhaps our monies may be better spent 'til we hear more of this from professional voices. Annie"

"Thank you for the responses I have received regarding this test kit and process. From everything I am hearing it sounds dangerous. I mean that a lot of our credibility with the public and the governmental agencies that regulate us depends on the perception that we are using the most reliable and safest methods to ensure that the animals we are caring for are not a threat to the public well being. If it is known that one of us is using an unproven and unreliable process or procedure, then that could damage the credibility of that person and any other rehabbers that the public or the agencies associate with us. If I get in an animal that is suspect, I euthanize it and take the head to my State lab. In 15 years I have had only one animal come back positive. So that means many animals have been needlessly euthanized. Yes it does. I cannot deny that. But when a reporter or a school administrator asks me how can I be sure that the animals I am dealing with are safe, I can state that I am incompliance with all requirements of state and federal authorities regarding that issue. I immunize RVS' that I release for rabies and distemper. Not just for the animals well being but for the publics perception that I am doing what I can to minimize the threat to theirs and their families safety. Some have argued that by immunizing the wild animals I am rehabbing, that I am upsetting natural processes. That rabies and distemper are naturally occurring diseases which control populations. My rationale for the rabies is clear. It is to protect the animals from the publics fear that they might have rabies. If the public wants to think I am doing it to protect them, it doesn't hurt. For the distemper I argue that frequency of occurrence in our wild populations is unnaturally affected by the wild animals interactions with the strays and feral, domestic animals running in our area. That means that I think the distemper issue is a man-made threat and I feel justified in doing what I can to fight it. But doing something that is less than 100% recognized and proven can have disastrous results. Especially in those States which regulate or prohibit the rehab of RVS."

How to tell if a raccoon has rabies: while it's always a good idea to err on the side of caution, it's actually not that hard, since a rabid raccoon is such a blatantly and obviously sick animal in a state of high distress. Click to learn more about other raccoon diseases, such as raccoon roundworm.

Wildlife Education - Information, Advice, About How Sick Rabid Raccoons