Rabies Testing

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The Virology Section will accept animals for rabies testing from county health departments, county rabies animal control groups, state public health agencies, and veterinarians. Individuals wishing to have animals tested for rabies should contact their local rabies animal control group or their veterinarian.

The test used for rabies is called the Fluorescent Rabies Antibody test (FRA) and it cannot be performed on living animals. Turn around time is 24 hours for routine testing. Emergency testing will give preliminary results within three hours of the receipt of the animal but confirmation of preliminary test results requires 24 hours. Animals received on Friday will not have testing completed until the next business day. Emergency testing will be performed only in situations where the potential for rabies in the suspect animal is high.

Specimen Required

The specimen required for FRA testing is brain tissue from the animal suspected of having rabies. If the tissue is frozen it may be thawed and then tested. Freezing of the tissue will not affect the outcome of the FRA test but may delay testing if the technician needs to wait for the tissue to thaw before slides can be made. Glycerinated specimens present no problem in testing. If specimens are preserved in formalin or alcohol they may not be suitable for testing and the Laboratory should be contacted prior to their submission.

Animal Submission and Handling

Any animal suspected of having rabies should be sacrificed immediately and sent to the laboratory for examination. Immunofluorescence antigen will be detectable in the brain at any stage of the disease during which the virus can be transmitted. If a domestic or pet animal with no signs of illness bites a human or another animal and there is no reason other than the biting incident to suspect rabies, the bite animal can be confined for 10 days. If symptoms develop during the holding period, the animal must be killed immediately and sent to the laboratory for testing. If no symptoms develop during the holding period, the exposed person is considered not at risk.

A wild or stray animal that bites a human or another animal must always be killed immediately and sent to the laboratory for examination. If the animal is shot, the animal should be shot through the heart and not through the head. A bullet in the brain may destroy tissues needed for laboratory testing. The head should be immediately refrigerated and submitted to the laboratory as soon as possible. The rest of the body should be incinerated. The entire body of small animals, such as bats, should be sent to the laboratory. Unless circumstances surrounding the exposure suggest rabies infection, caged rodents such as hamsters, etc., should not be submitted for testing.

Specimens should be placed on wet ice and, if possible, delivered directly to the laboratory by messenger. If no messenger service is available, pack the head for shipment by the fastest common carrier. Put it in a watertight container and seal the lid tightly. Alternately, the head may be double bagged in thick ply garbage bags and sent in a Styrofoam box, or other appropriate shipping container, packed to keep the head cold but not frozen. Ensure that the contents of the package are packed so that they will not leak fluid from the animal or from melting ice. The shipper is responsible for making sure that the package does not leak. Frozen animals/animal heads may be submitted but receipt of a frozen specimen may delay testing (although freezing will not interfere with the immunofluorescence test).

Specimens must be accompanied by a rabies submission formPDF with the following information included:

  • Name and address of submitter
  • Date specimen was collected
  • Name of person(s) or animals exposed
  • Geographical location where collected
  • Type of specimen
  • Whether animal died or was killed
  • Rabies vaccination status of the animal, if known
  • Whether animal was confined or observed before death
  • Description of animal's behavior
  • Circumstances surrounding the exposure
  • Personnel to be informed of test results including a telephone number.
  • Date of exposure

Submission forms should not be placed inside the packaging with the animal. Place submission forms on the outside of packages.

For agencies that do not routinely submit specimens for testing to the State Laboratory, please contact the Laboratory prior to submission to advise of submission, carrier, estimated arrival time, etc.

  • All "rush" requests for rabies testing should be called into the Laboratory before the specimen arrives.

Label all packages clearly and ship to the Laboratory by the safest means. Requirements for packaging and labeling shipments of etiologic agents are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Submission of Rodents for Rabies Testing:

Effective January 1, 1994, the State Health Laboratory will no longer routinely test rodents for rabies following bite or scratch exposures, except under unusual circumstances. Unusual circumstances may include bites where the rodent's behavior or health is in question, or if a bite occurs in a rabies epizootic area. Please contact Vector-borne and Zoonotic Disease (VBZD) staff at (602) 364-4562 before submitting rodents for testing. The State Laboratory will not test caged/pet rodents such as hamsters and gerbils since these animals have no chance for contracting rabies.