What is rabies?

Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that is spread in the saliva of infected animals. All mammals can get rabies. People usually get rabies from licks, bites, or scratches from infected dogs and other animals such as bats, foxes, raccoons, and mongooses.

Rabies affects the central nervous system, ultimately causing brain disease and death. Once symptoms of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, so prevention is especially important.

Who is at risk?

Rabies is found around the world, except Antarctica. Travelers who may come into contact with wild or domestic animals are at risk for rabies. This includes travelers spending a lot of time outdoors (such as campers and cavers), travelers with occupational risks (such as veterinarians and wildlife professionals), and long-term travelers and expatriates. Children are also at higher risk because they often play with animals, might not report bites, and are more likely to be bitten on the head and neck.

In some parts of the world, rabies is common, and access to preventive treatment may be hard. If traveling to a country where there is an increased risk of rabies, especially in dogs, rabies vaccination may be recommended before your trip.

What can travelers do to prevent rabies?

Get a rabies vaccine, if recommended

If your activities will bring you into contact with animals such as dogs, cats, bats, or other carnivores, you should consider pre-exposure rabies vaccination, which is a 3-shot series (days 0, 7, and 21 or 28) given before travel.

Even if you receive pre-exposure vaccination, you should still get immediate medical treatment if you are bitten or scratched by an animal.

Be safe around animals

People usually get rabies from licks, bites, or scratches from infected dogs and other animals such as bats, foxes, raccoons, and mongooses. Learn more about how to be safe around animals.

Avoid animal bites

  • Avoid touching all animals, including wild animals and pets. Pets in other countries may not be vaccinated against rabies.
  • Supervise children closely, especially around dogs, cats, and wildlife such as monkeys.
  • If you are traveling with your pet, supervise your pet closely and do not allow it to play with local animals, including local pets and especially avoid stray animals.
  • Avoid bringing animals home to the United States. Dogs and cats may be infected with rabies but not show signs for days or months.

Act quickly if an animal bites or scratches you

  • Wash the wound well with soap and water.
  • See a health care provider right away, even if you don’t feel sick or your wound does not look serious. To prevent rabies, you may need to start a series of vaccinations immediately.
  • To get vaccinated, be prepared to travel back to the United States or to another area. Adequate vaccination for exposure to rabies is not available in all parts of the world.
    • Consider buying medical evacuation insurance to cover the cost to get you to the nearest destination where complete care can be obtained.
  • After you return home, tell your health care provider or state health department that you were bitten or scratched during travel.

Page reviewed on: Mar 09, 2017

Page reviewed by: Jessie L. Leyse, MD