Animals can be cute, and you may want to pet them, but any animal, even if it appears to be friendly or harmless, can be dangerous. Any animal can bite, scratch, kick, or otherwise injure you, even if you did nothing to provoke it. Animals are often frightened of humans or trying to protect their territory or their young, so stay away from all animals. Some diseases can cause an animal to behave aggressively toward people, even if it had previously been friendly. Never try to pet, handle, or feed unfamiliar animals, even pets. (In other countries, pets may not be vaccinated against rabies and other diseases the way they are in the United States.)
Dogs and cats
The main threat from dogs and cats is rabies. Rabies is spread in the saliva of an infected animal, so the only way to prevent it (other than vaccination) is to avoid being bitten, scratched, or licked by any animal. Although any mammal can get rabies, dogs are responsible for most rabies deaths.
If you are bitten or scratched
Immediately wash the wound with plenty of soap and water, and see a doctor as soon as possible. Rabies is almost always fatal if an exposed person is not promptly given rabies immune globulin and vaccinations. In some countries, these may not be available. Medical evacuation insurance would pay to fly you to a country where you can get the best care.
Rabies vaccination is recommended for certain travelers:
- People staying a long time in a high-risk area
- People involved in outdoor activities, such as camping or caving, where they might come into contact with animals
- People whose jobs will put them at risk (such as veterinarians or wildlife personnel)
- Some children (they tend to play with animals and so are at higher risk)
If you or your children fall into any of these categories, ask your travel medicine provider about rabies vaccination. Even if you have been vaccinated against rabies, you must get rabies vaccination boosters as soon as possible if you are exposed to an animal that might have rabies; having vaccine before traveling will simplify your post-exposure management and may give you more time to seek care. Being vaccinated only buys you more time to get treatment after an exposure.
Monkeys and apes
Monkeys can spread rabies, and they can also transmit serious infections such as Ebola and similar viruses, herpes B virus, and tuberculosis. If you are traveling to places where monkeys roam wild, such as certain temples in Southeast Asia, never try to touch or feed a monkey. They can also be aggressive if they smell food in your pockets or bags, so leave all food in the car or hotel.
Bats often have rabies, and they don’t just live in caves—they could find their way into your place of lodging. If you find a bat in your room after you wake up, you should consult with a local health authority to discuss your risk of rabies.
Because bat bites are small, you may not notice being bitten if you are a heavy sleeper, were intoxicated, or have a developmental disability. In addition, bats can spread diseases such as histoplasmosis and Marburg fever. Stay away from caves or mines where there are a lot of bats. Rabies vaccine may be recommended for people who will be exploring caves.
Rodents (such as rats and mice) can spread many diseases through bites and scratches, urine, feces, or fleas. These diseases include plague, leptospirosis, hantavirus disease, and rickettsial disease. Avoid places that look like they may be infested with rodents, and do not touch anything that may be contaminated with rodent urine or feces.
If you become ill during or after your trip and you came into contact with an animal while traveling, make sure to tell your provider about your contact with animals.
Page reviewed on: Mar 09, 2017
Page reviewed by: Jessie L. Leyse, MD
- Infectious Disease and International Health Team
- International Travel Clinic
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