6 Awful Things You Learn During A Rabies Scare
I never really thought about rabies, simply because I never had to. The dog from Cujo had it. The zombies from Left 4 Dead have it. And that was about where my knowledge ended -- it's a fantasy disease that only happens in horror plots or that one episode of The Office.
After my wife and dogs had the potential to get it (from a bat in our house that tested positive for rabies), I started brushing up on this horrifying asshole of a disease, and my first thought was, "Shouldn't it be easy in the 21st century not to get rabies?" With today's modern medicine and techniques, rabies should be about as prevalent as smallpox, right?
Not exactly. Here's why.
You Can Get It From A Whole Bunch Of Animals
Back in 2012, I woke up to screams that there was a bat clinging to our ottoman. The little son of a bitch even hissed at my wife when she got near it.
This little son of a bitch, to be exact.
Now, this wasn't our first time to the bat rodeo ... which actually sounds like a terrifying concept, so let's start over. This wasn't our first trip to the bat strip club. A few months prior, we found one flying around the basement that we did not manage to catch. Luckily, this time it was daytime and the little fella was asleep. Animal control was called, they took him away, and we thought that was that. Not even a month later ...
"Hey, my buddy said it was cool for me to crash here."
At this point, I deduced that either my wife is Batman or we have a serious fucking bat problem in this house.
I decided to strap on my research pants (fluffy pajama bottoms that read "STUDMUFFIN" on the ass) for a quick look at some bat information. While I found substantial evidence to refute the Batman theory, I did discover some equally disappointing evidence to support my second theory.
He spreads five times more disease using this one weird trick. Exterminators hate him!
Did you know bats account for 23.2 percent of all reported rabies cases? I always thought of bats as blind idiots who make vampires happen. I never thought they could actually kill us. But bats aren't even the main group that causes rabies. Raccoons and skunks are at the top of the list, with foxes and other rodents not far behind. But these animals are just the main ones to transmit the disease. They can then go on to transfer it to any warm-blooded mammal, right in their stupid faces.
Pictured: a wholly non-discriminating virus. Respect.
Not only do mammals have the ability to infect each other, they do it a lot. Around 7,000 times a year, in fact, and that's just the ones that we physically find and diagnose. That was the first curveball the virus threw me. There's a whole lot more rabies floating around out there than I thought. Luckily, during my 14-and-a-half minutes of research, which now qualifies me as a scientist, I also discovered that due to vaccination efforts in humans and domestic dogs, rabies actually kills only two or three people per year in the U.S. So we should be fine, right?
I kept reading and learned that's not necessarily true.
You Usually Don't Know You Have It
Well, shit. We now have three confirmed bat attacks in the house, and God knows how many of them were flying around our bedroom while we were sleeping and vulnerable. Plus, I did some quick math in my head: Two people die from rabies in the U.S. every year, and there were two of us. I didn't like those odds. So the next thing to find out: Were we bitten by our new bat friends? Well, like most of the facts you'll find about rabies, this answer was none too thrilling either. Have you ever seen a bat bite?
All the zoom/enhance in the world can't help you this time.
See those two little dots there in between the MM line? Yeah, neither do most. Turns out, bat bites are exceptionally tiny and are often confused with mosquito bites. And if that's not enough bullshit for you, how about this? You don't even necessarily need to get bitten for the virus to be transferred. All it takes is a little bit of their infected saliva. So even kissing one isn't safe. Time to edit my bucket list.
The facts were beginning to stack up. Bats cause rabies, our house is basically a rave meetup spot for bats ... so at some point, we had the potential to be exposed to rabies. So I decided, fine, we'll go and get a stupid rabies test so they can tell us we don't have stupid rabies and that will be the stupid end of it. That was when I learned my next surprise about the rabies virus: There is currently no test to detect the virus before symptoms appear. A small snag in my plan, but not necessarily the end of the world, unless of course the bat kills us with stupid rabies.
This quick afternoon of research was now turning into a whole thing. Whatever -- we'll just have to keep an eye out for the symptoms of rabies and that will be that.
The Symptoms Range From Flu-Like To Downright Horrifying
Let me get this out of the way right now: Rabies symptoms are fucking scary. First of all, they might not surface for a while. The incubation period for rabies usually lasts around three months before you start to show signs of the virus. But studies have shown it lying dormant for five days to several years before the symptoms kicked in. So not only won't you know you have the disease, it might not come to bite you in the ass for a couple of years, long after the animal that caused it has laughed itself to death.
What we refer to in the animal kingdom as "the long con."
Let's say the disease finally does rear its ugly head. What then? Well, that's when the real fun begins. First off, you'll get a fever, restlessness, sore throat ... you know, all the symptoms of the flu. From then on, you lose muscle function and suffer convulsions until you finally graduate to full-on hydrophobia, which means your body actively refuses to allow water into your system. Even attempting to take a drink of water causes your throat to spasm. You're basically reduced to a convulsing, snarling nightmare straight out of ... Left 4 Dead.
Oh, now I get it.
Oh, and the other great thing about rabies is once you start showing symptoms, you're fucked. There's nothing they can do for you. People who are diagnosed by their symptoms rarely live past a week. So we're dealing with a virus that you may or may not get ... from most animals ... that you might go years before actually becoming symptomatic ... and when you do, you might confuse it for a disease so common and mild its treatment is basically just soup. Awesome.
At this point, I had sufficient reason to want to prevent this from happening to me. I could have called the doctor's office right then and made an appointment. But, like an idiot, I decided to see if anyone was able to beat the odds and survive rabies after diagnosis so I wouldn't have to be bothered with dealing with treatment. And they did! Finally, some good news.
The Only Way To Beat It Is To Turn Your Brain Off
The rabies virus goes after your brain, causing inflammation and a bad case of the crazies. Doctors learned this and decided the best course of action was to cut the virus off at the source. They developed a treatment with the badass code name of The Milwaukee protocol.
"You don't know the history of echolocation. I do."
While the name is cool, the procedure seems anything but. It involves putting you into a medically induced coma and shutting your brain off for a little bit. See, rabies causes temporary brain dysfunction but doesn't actually damage the brain itself. You usually die of respiratory failure due to that silly hydrophobia nonsense. So they turn the brain off and send antibiotics to attack the virus. The first time they did it was for a 14-year-old girl in Wisconsin, hence the protocol name. She later woke up with the ability to cast fireballs and manipulate time. Since then, it's saved only two more people, despite being attempted several more times.
The biggest risk involved is the possibility of Sharpie dicks on your face.
Well, not really, but I always imagine waking up from comas and having superpowers. Let a man dream, goddammit.
After being terrified beyond belief, I realized something else. Aside from my wife and me, our two dogs were in the same room. So we're dealing with four potential bite victims. And if movies about dogs having rabies have taught me anything, it's that dogs are a magnet for the virus. If anyone in the house was likely to get it, it was them. So I made a call to animal services and asked what they recommended. That led to a call with a different animal services department, who finally told us to call a medical laboratory to get the captured bat looked at. Some tests were done, more calls were made, and we got a report back from the lab:
The bat tested positive for rabies. Here's the number for the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
Your Pets Will Be Quarantined
Like I mentioned before, it is not easy to test for rabies. They actually have to cut the head off so they can dig around in the brain for it. We politely but firmly told the nice man from the Dept. Of Agriculture that we would prefer to go another route with our pug and Pomeranian. After a confusing look of disappointment on his face, he told us he would do the next best thing. He slapped a yellow notice on our front window and enforced a three-month mandatory quarantine on our dogs, forcing them to stay on the property, despite their up-to-date vaccinations. They were not allowed to be out of the house except to relieve themselves. We could only walk them around the yard, they weren't allowed any playmates, and if they showed any symptoms within those three months ...
Well, let's just say that I'd never be able to watch Old Yeller again.
And just in case we were getting too comfy, they let us know it was under the department's jurisdiction whether or not they wanted to take our pets somewhere for further supervision down the line. Luckily, that wasn't the case for us, and, honestly, as long as it kept the dogs and the neighborhood safe, we had no issues with the quarantine.
"*sigh* So many cats left unchewed ..."
But that still left my wife and me. I've been writing for Cracked for a few years now, and in this line of work you find yourself with a lot of open wounds from various knife fights and the like. The possibility that this bat got his saliva in one of them was huge. So we decided the only way to feel safe was to get the treatment.
Related: Adopting A Puppy In Quarantine
Even The Possibility Of A Bite Will Equal Weeks Of Treatment
Thank Christ this is not a few decades ago. The treatment used to be dozens of injections directly into your stomach -- an outdated belief I had about rabies that was thankfully stomped out. I'm not into the idea of dying a painful, agonizing death, but ever since I was tricked into getting a belly button ring, I have reservations about pointy shit near my stomach.
But the reality wasn't exactly a trip to Disney World either. We called the hospital, who informed us we would have to head on over to the emergency room, which we did. What they did not tell us was that this was going to be the first in a series of shots administered over several weeks.
"And here is the day I do nothing but cry."
We were given the first shot and a bill for $100 each for the pleasure. Because the vaccine isn't a readily available thing, it was only available in the emergency room of our local hospital. So each subsequent visit was another $200 out of pocket. The super fun treatment was done in just under a month. And I gotta give it to that hospital: They do some excellent work. It's been almost three years and absolutely zero rabies outbreaks. As a side effect, we have also not contracted the black plague. I don't know if the two are related, but I'm still marking that down as a win.
Look, in retrospect: No, we probably didn't need to go through all that nonsense to avoid a virus we probably wouldn't have gotten anyway. We probably didn't need to get the government involved. And we could have certainly side-stepped the hundreds of dollars in hospital bills. But it did buy us pretty substantial peace of mind. A mind that doesn't have to be shut off because a couple fucking bats decided to chill out on our couch.
God was 100 percent correct to give them troll faces.
I'm not about to let the bats win. That's why I do what I do.
Erik Germ loves it when you follow him on Twitter. He would like to dedicate this column to the memory of his father, his biggest fan.
For more from Erik, check out 5 Shockingly Dark Scenes Starring Iconic Kids' Characters and 5 Easy Fixes to Complex Problems You Won't Believe Worked.
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