What is rabies and how does it spread? What to know after Texas livestock incident

Madeleine Cook/mcook@star-telegram.com

Five people were recently treated for rabies after being exposed to a cow in Cooke County, about an hour and a half away from Tarrant County.

On Feb. 3, the Cooke County Sheriff’s Office said a 10-year-old, unvaccinated cow had tested positive for rabies after its owners noticed it was choking or having other breathing problems. The two owners, two assistants and a veterinarian were exposed to the saliva of the cow as they tried to save it.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that is 100% fatal once symptoms appear, according to the World Health Organization. It can impact both domestic and wild animals, but most commonly dogs.

It typically takes about two to three months between time of exposure and when the first symptoms are shown, but this varies.

How is rabies spread?

Rabies spreads to people and animals through saliva — usually through bites — scratches or direct contact with the eyes, mouth or open wounds.

In 2021, the Texas Farm Bureau reported skunks spreading rabies in the Panhandle and in Central Texas, posing a risk to livestock.

People are usually infected following a deep bite or scratch from an animal with rabies, according to the World Health Organization. Transmission also occurs if infected saliva comes into direct contact with the eyes, mouth or fresh skin wounds.

Can humans die from rabies?

According to the World Health Organization, there are two types of rabies: Furious rabies and paralytic rabies.

In cases with furious rabies, death occurs after a few days. Symptoms include:

  • hyperactivity

  • excitable behavior

  • hallucinations

  • lack of coordination

  • fear of water

  • fear of fresh air

Paralytic rabies makes up twenty percent of human cases. Symptoms include paralyzed muscles, coma and death.

Can rabies be treated?

Rabies can be treated before it enters the central nervous system. Emergency response includes:

  • extensive washing with water and soap for at least 15 minutes and treatment of the wound as soon as possible

  • an effective rabies vaccine that meets WHO standards

  • the possible administration of rabies antibodies into the wound

Can rabies be prevented?

The rabies vaccine for animals is the most cost-effective way to prevent rabies as it stops transmission at its source.

Vaccines can have an immunity duration between one and three years.

Texas requires all dog and cat pets to be vaccinated by a licensed veterinarian at four months.