Coyotes are wild animals that are found throughout North America. They normally avoid humans, but conflicts can occur, especially in urban and suburban areas. Rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system of mammals, including coyotes, and is usually fatal once symptoms appear. Knowing the signs of a rabid coyote can help you stay safe if you encounter one.
What is rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system of mammals. It is spread through the saliva of infected animals, usually through bites. Infected animals can shed the virus in their saliva several days before they show any symptoms. Rabies causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and is nearly always fatal once symptoms appear.
There are two main types of rabies virus – furious rabies and paralytic (or dumb) rabies. Furious rabies is the more common form, causing infected animals to act restless, aggressive, and display extreme behavior changes. Paralytic rabies causes loss of muscle control and paralysis. Infected animals may become timid and shy away from contact.
All mammals are susceptible to rabies, including coyotes. Wild animals like coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and skunks are the most common carriers in North America. Unvaccinated domestic animals like dogs and cats are also at risk if exposed.
Rabies is transmitted through infected saliva, usually by a bite wound. The virus travels along peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and brain where it multiplies, causing inflammation and dysfunction. Once symptoms appear, rabies is nearly 100% fatal.
Signs of rabies in coyotes
In the early stages of infection, a rabid coyote may not show noticeable signs. But as the disease progresses they exhibit some distinct behavioral changes and symptoms:
- Disorientation – Appearing confused, wandering aimlessly, or having trouble navigating obstacles.
- Nocturnal activity during the day – Rabid coyotes may be active during daylight hours when they normally hunt at night.
- Bizarre behavior – Unprovoked aggression, erratic movements, restlessness, irritability.
- Lack of fear – Loss of natural wariness of humans, allowing people to approach closely.
- Trouble walking – Hind leg weakness, limping, or paralysis if the infection has spread to motor neurons.
- Incoordination – Loss of balance, stumbling, or inability to judge distances.
- Excessive salivation or drooling.
- Eventual paralysis (dumb rabies) or intense aggression (furious rabies).
Not every rabid coyote will display all these signs. Sudden changes in natural behaviors like emerging during the daytime or loss of fear of humans are some of the most telling signs of rabies infection.
How is rabies transmitted?
The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. Most cases occur when rabies is introduced into a bite or fresh wound. This usually happens in the following ways:
- Bites – The most common mode of rabies transmission is through infected saliva introduced by a bite from a rabid animal. Coyote bites can transmit rabies.
- Scratches – Scratches from an infected animal can also transmit rabies if saliva is introduced into the wound.
- Mucous membranes – If infected saliva makes contact with mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth rabies can be transmitted.
- Aerosol transmission – In rare cases, rabies can be contracted in confined spaces with high virus concentration in the air, like laboratories or caves with infected bats.
Infected coyotes can only transmit rabies once they start shedding the virus in their saliva. This occurs shortly before they start exhibiting symptoms. The disease can progress very rapidly in coyotes once they are infectious.
What to do if you suspect a coyote is rabid
If you encounter a coyote exhibiting unusual behavior, avoid contact and do the following:
- Do not approach the coyote – Back away slowly without turning your back or running.
- Protect your pets – Keep dogs on a leash and keep small pets indoors to avoid contact.
- Warn others in the area – Alert neighbors, hikers, campers and authorities to the potentially rabid coyote.
- Contact animal control – Notify authorities to remove the animal.
- Seek medical care if bitten or scratched – Wash wounds thoroughly and get post-exposure rabies shots.
- Notify your doctor about possible exposure – Even if not bitten directly, inform your doctor about contact with a potentially rabid coyote.
Avoiding contact is crucial, as rabies is almost always fatal once contracted. Do not attempt to trap, kill, or interact with a rabid or suspected rabid coyote yourself.
Diagnosing rabies in coyotes
There are several techniques used for diagnosing rabies infection in coyotes:
- Direct fluorescent antibody test – Examining brain tissue samples for the presence of rabies virus using fluorescent microscopy.
- Virus isolation – Attempting to culture rabies virus from saliva, brain tissue or other samples.
- RT-PCR – Detecting viral RNA in saliva samples using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction techniques.
- Histologic analysis – Microscopic examination of brain tissue for characteristic rabies lesions.
- Immunohistochemical staining – Using labeled antibodies to detect rabies antigen in fixed brain samples.
A definitive rabies diagnosis can only be made by direct detection of viral material within a sample from the infected animal. Samples are taken after euthanasia and testing is performed by specialized reference laboratories, not in the field.
Risk factors for coyote rabies
Certain factors increase the risk of rabies exposure from coyotes:
- Areas with high rates of wildlife rabies – More coyotes infected where disease circulates in wildlife.
- Interactions with infected species – Coyotes can acquire rabies from other wildlife like foxes, bats or raccoons.
- Unvaccinated pets – Coyotes can transmit to dogs, cats and other domestic animals.
- Presence of stray animals – Increased contact between coyotes and unvaccinated pets.
- Lack of oral rabies vaccination – Reduced herd immunity if wildlife not vaccinated.
- Urban and suburban areas – More opportunities for human contact as habitats overlap.
- Spring and early summer – Coyote mating season increases aggressive encounters.
- Lack of consistent trash containment – Access to human food sources reduces fear of humans.
Understanding local rates of rabies and potential for transmission from wildlife can help assess your risk. Avoiding contact with wildlife and keeping pets current on rabies vaccination helps reduce the threat of rabies exposure.
Preventing coyote rabies
Here are some key ways to help prevent rabies in coyotes and reduce human exposure risk:
- Vaccinate pets – Keep dogs, cats, ferrets and horses up to date on rabies shots.
- Report stray animals – Notify animal control of loose pets or wildlife behaving strangely.
- Avoid contact with wildlife – Do not handle or feed wild animals.
- Manage food sources – Securely contain trash and avoid feeding coyotes.
- Oral vaccination programs – Wildlife rabies vaccination with oral baits helps manage disease spread.
- Population control – Keeping coyote populations in check may reduce rabies transmission.
- Public education – Teach proper rabies prevention and recognition of rabies symptoms.
Public health officials also perform rabies surveillance testing and warnings when rabid animals are identified. Seek medical advice promptly for any animal bites to initiate post-exposure prophylaxis rabies treatment if warranted.
Treating a rabid coyote bite
If you are bitten by a coyote that may have rabies, seek medical care immediately and follow these steps:
- Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water to lower the risk of infection.
- Apply antibiotic cream to reduce likelihood of bacterial infection.
- Get stitches from your doctor if needed.
- Receive a course of rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) shots.
- PEP involves a dose of rabies immune globulin and 4 doses of rabies vaccine over 14 days.
- The first dose of PEP should be given as soon as possible after exposure.
- Finish the entire PEP schedule as advised by your doctor.
- Report the coyote bite to animal control and public health department.
- Have the coyote captured for rabies testing if possible.
PEP is highly effective in preventing development of rabies after exposure, if administered promptly and properly. Your doctor may consider antibody testing to help guide treatment.
Rabies in coyotes statistics and facts
Some key statistics and facts about coyote rabies:
- Around 90% of reported rabies cases in the US occur in wildlife like coyotes, raccoons, bats and skunks.
- Coyotes are a major reservoir of rabies in south and central regions of the US.
- Coyote variant rabies has spread from the Southern US into the Northeast since the 1970s.
- Coyotes surpassed domestic dogs as the leading reported rabies host in the US in the early 1980s.
- Reported coyote rabies cases in the US have declined from over 700 in 1983 to around 90 annually since the 1990s.
- Texas consistently reports the highest number of rabid coyotes, followed by New Mexico and Arizona.
- Bites account for over 90% of rabies virus exposures in humans in the US.
- Wildlife like coyotes account for nearly 98% of diagnosed rabid animal cases.
While human rabies deaths are now rare in the US, potentially infectious coyote encounters are still a public health concern. Proper pet vaccination, avoiding contact with wildlife, and prompt medical care can prevent human rabies cases.
Rabies remains an important infectious disease concern for coyotes across North America. Knowing the common signs of rabies in coyotes allows prompt action to be taken to avoid human and pet contact. Vaccinating pets, controlling stray animals, and educating the public are key prevention measures. If a coyote is suspected to be rabid, contact authorities to remove the animal and seek medical care immediately for any bite or scratch to begin life-saving rabies post-exposure treatment.