Foodborne and Animal-Transmitted Illnesses

Foodborne and Animal-Transmitted Illnesses

This guide serves as an overview of foodborne and animal-transmitted illnesses found in Pennsylvania. It is not meant to replace a medical professional’s opinion. If you believe you are sick, please see a medical professional.



What Is It?

Rabies is a virus of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) that can affect any mammal and is widespread throughout Pennsylvania.

Rabies is a great public health concern because it can be transmitted to humans by the bite of infected animals and is nearly 100% fatal without post-exposure treatment.

Since 2000, between 350 and 500 animals in Pennsylvania annually are confirmed in a laboratory to have rabies. The most common mammals to be affected in Pennsylvania are raccoons, bats, skunks, and cats. The last diagnosed human case of rabies in Pennsylvania was in 1984.

Rabies in Humans

If you believe you or your child has been exposed, immediately call your local health department or the Pennsylvania Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258) for more information.

By law, all animal bites in PA must be reported by medical professionals to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. If a person has been bitten, scratched, or otherwise exposed to saliva by a mammal that is suspected of having rabies, the animal must be tested for rabies.

The only way to test for rabies is to euthanize the animal and have it submitted to an approved laboratory for rabies testing.

If a person has been bitten or scratched by a mammal, either domestic or wild, but the animal is not available for observation or testing, they should seek medical assistance immediately. The medical professional must notify the county or local Department of Health office.

Signs and Symptoms

Exposure to rabies can occur through any of the following methods:

  • A direct bite from a contagious, rabid mammal
  • A scratch from a rabid mammal that breaks the skin
  • Saliva or neural tissue from a contagious, rabid animal contacting an open wound or break in the skin
  • Saliva or neural tissue from a contagious, rabid animal contacting mucus membranes such as the eyes, nose, or mouth

Other possible methods of exposure exist but are rare. Bites from hamsters or other small rodents (rabbit, mouse, chipmunk, squirrel, etc.) are most often not considered an exposure because these animals rarely test positive for rabies.

Symptoms are:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Pain or itching at the exposure site

The disease eventually progresses to paralysis, spasms of the throat muscles, seizures, delirium, and death.

It’s never too late to seek medical attention for potential rabies exposure. Once symptoms begin, treatment is almost always unsuccessful. The incubation period for rabies in humans is usually three to eight weeks, but can be as short as one week or as long as nine years.

How Is It Treated?

Following exposure to a rabid animal, immediately wash the wound with soap and warm water, then quickly seek medical care.

A human rabies vaccine might be prescribed. The vaccine is a series of four shots given in the arm (or thigh, for small children) on days 0, 3, 7, and 14. The rabies vaccine is highly effective in preventing the disease after exposure — if given before any symptoms develop.

If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford the vaccine, there are rabies vaccination assistance programs available for qualified patients. Contact your health care provider for more information.

There also is a pre-exposure vaccine available for those at elevated risk of exposure, such as veterinarians or others who frequently work with animals. Contact your health care provider to inquire.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Rabies in humans is a preventable disease if exposure is recognized and treatment is given in a timely manner.

Immediately washing a bite or scratch with soap and water can greatly reduce the risk of rabies.

The rabies virus can survive on inanimate objects for as long as it takes the saliva to completely dry. Sunlight will kill the virus, but freezing and moisture can preserve it. The virus is killed by most disinfectants. There has never been a documented case of rabies transmitted to humans from an inanimate object.

Rabies in Animals

Signs and Symptoms

Rabies signs are grouped into two forms — furious and paralytic (or dumb). An animal may show signs of only one type, progress from one form to the other, or show no signs other than death.

The furious form of rabies is familiar to most people. Signs may include:

  • Aggression
  • Loss of fear
  • Daytime activity by a nocturnal species
  • Attraction to noise and human activity
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Biting at objects or other animals
  • Drooling

The paralytic form of rabies may include symptoms such as:

  • Decreased activity
  • Poor coordination
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Acting “dull”
  • Cats meowing excessively

As the disease progresses, an animal affected by paralytic rabies may:

  • Drop its lower jaw
  • Drool
  • Become unable to swallow
  • Become paralyzed
  • Die

It’s important to realize that not all animals show every sign. Most neurological or behavioral abnormalities could potentially be rabies.

It’s possible for the rabies virus to be transmitted through water if an animal is drinking out of a water dish at the same time as another rabid animal or shortly after the rabid animal was drinking. The virus will not survive for long in water, but it will last long enough to possibly infect another animal.

Rabies has an incubation period. The incubation is the period from exposure to rabies virus until the animal finally becomes sick or acts differently and is capable of infecting other animals or people. The incubation period can be as short as two weeks or, in very rare cases, as long as one year.

During the incubation period, the animal cannot transmit rabies and its behavior remains normal. There may be time for the vaccine to prevent the animal from developing rabies and to prevent it from transmitting the rabies virus to another person or animal.

Caution: Mammals may have the rabies virus in their saliva and may be able to transmit it for a short period of time before clinical signs appear.

How Is It Treated?

The only way to test for rabies is to euthanize the animal and have it submitted to an approved laboratory for rabies testing.

If the owner is unwilling to have the animal euthanized, the animal should be placed in strict quarantine where the animal must be observed for a period — during which it is prevented from exposing other people or animals.

If the animal is clinically normal (not showing any signs of rabies) by the end of the observation period, then it was unlikely to have had rabies in its saliva on the day it bit, and will be released from observation. If the animal shows signs of rabies or dies before the observation period is over, it should be submitted for rabies testing.

If you or your animal has been bitten by a dog and the owner is not cooperative, or you need to report a dangerous dog , contact the PA Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement at 717-787-3062.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Rabies Vaccine

Vaccination of domestic mammals for rabies is effective. Vaccination is recommended for all species for which there is an approved rabies vaccine. (Discuss vaccination of species for which there is not an approved rabies vaccine with your veterinarian.)

By Pennsylvania law, all dogs and non-feral cats older than three months of age are required to be vaccinated against rabies.

Even pets that are indoors only are required to be vaccinated, because bats and other rabies-carrying wildlife may enter a home and transmit rabies to domestic animals. Barn cats that never enter an indoor dwelling inhabited by humans are not required to be vaccinated, however it is strongly recommended since there is a large incidence of rabies in this population of cats.

Each year, dog wardens employed by the Department of Agriculture visit neighborhoods across Pennsylvania to conduct dog license and rabies compliance checks . If your dog isn’t vaccinated for rabies, you could be fined up to $300.

Other Methods of Preventing Rabies

  • Do not handle wildlife
  • Maintain control of your pets by keeping cats and ferrets indoors and keeping dogs under direct supervision
  • Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated
  • Call animal control to remove all stray animals from your neighborhood, since these animals may be unvaccinated or ill

Handling Encounters with Bats

Bats in homes (dead or alive) are a relatively common occurrence in Pennsylvania.

If you discover a bat in your home, close the door to the room where it’s located or, if possible, place a box or large container over the bat to contain it.

Next, contact your Regional PA Game Commission Office to report the bat and receive further direction.

Handling Encounters with Dead or Potentially Rabid Wildlife

If you come across a dead wild animal on your property or in an outbuilding, keep pets away from the animal and contact your Regional PA Game Commission Office for direction on handling the animal.

Observing wildlife species that are most often active at night or nocturnal during the day does not always mean an animal is rabid. There are a variety of reasons these species may be active during the day.

However, if you observe a wild animal behaving abnormally, appearing sick, or dying on your property, keep children and pets indoors and contact your Regional PA Game Commission Office to report the incident and receive further direction. Game wardens will respond as necessary, on a case by case basis.

Take Action

E. Coli

What Is It?

E. coli is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless, but some can make you sick.

Signs and Symptoms

E. coli signs and symptoms include:

  • Severe diarrhea that is often bloody
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

One severe complication is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which causes:

  • Decreased urine production
  • Dark or tea-colored urine
  • Pale face

How Is It Treated?

Drink plenty of fluids and get rest. If you can’t drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration, or if your symptoms are severe (including blood in your stools or severe abdominal pain), call your doctor. Antibiotics should not be used to treat this infection.

Most people will feel better in six to eight days.

How Can It Be Prevented?

  • Don’t eat high-risk foods, especially:
    • Undercooked ground beef
    • Unpasteurized milk or juice
    • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk
    • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure ground beef reaches a safe internal temperature of 160° F
  • Wash hands:
    • Before preparing food
    • After diapering infants
    • After contact with cows, sheep, or goats, their food or treats, or their living environment

Take Action

Lyme Disease

What Is It?

Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected deer ticks.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of reported Lyme disease cases in the United States. Deer ticks are found in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

Different types of ticks can carry other diseases that can be harmful to humans. View the CDC’s list of tickborne diseases in the U.S.

Signs and Symptoms

Early symptoms (three to 30 days after tick bite) include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain
  • Skin rash that looks like a bullseye (occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons)
  • Other general symptoms may occur in the absence of rash

It could take one to two weeks to show signs and symptoms of Lyme disease, and four to eight weeks to test positive for the disease.

How Is It Treated?

When detected early, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. People treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely. Left untreated, the disease can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Always check yourself, children, and pets for ticks after being outside.

While outdoors, you can take steps to reduce your chances of contracting Lyme disease:

  • Wear light-colored clothing to more easily spot ticks on you
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, if the weather allows, and tuck your pants into your socks to make it more difficult for ticks to find your skin
  • Walk in the center of trails and avoid brushing up against plants and grasses

If you do have a tick embedded in your skin, you will want to properly remove it to reduce your exposure to Lyme disease.

You can do this by grabbing it by the head of the tick and pulling straight up and out with a pair of tweezers. Twisting, covering with petroleum jelly, or using detergent or water will only agitate the tick and can further expose you to the disease. Learn more about safely removing ticks.

Take Action


What Is It?

Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the U.S. It’s a bacteria that is killed by cooking and pasteurization.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting

How Is It Treated?

Drink plenty of fluids and get rest. If you can’t drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration, or if your symptoms are severe, call your doctor. Antibiotics may be necessary if the infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream.

How Can It Be Prevented?

  • Don’t eat high-risk foods, especially:
    • Raw or lightly cooked eggs
    • Undercooked ground beef or poultry
    • Unpasteurized milk
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure ground beef reaches a safe internal temperature of 160° F
  • Wash hands:
    • Before preparing food
    • After diapering infants
    • After contact with cows, sheep or goats, their food or treats, or their living environment

Take Action

Other Foodborne Illness

What Are They?

There are more than 250 types of foodborne illness, including E.coli and Salmonella. The CDC estimates that each year in the United States:

  • 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness
  • 128,000 people are hospitalized for a foodborne illness
  • 3,000 people die from a foodborne illness

Signs and Symptoms

  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration

How Is It Treated?

Most people with a foodborne illness get better without medical treatment. People with severe symptoms should see their doctor.

If you have a food-related illness, your doctor or the laboratory that did your testing will also report it to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. You also can call 1-877-PA-HEALTH to speak with a public health nurse.

How Can It Be Prevented?

  1. Clean: Wash your hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate: Do not cross-contaminate your foods.
  3. Cook: Cook your food to the right temperature.
  4. Chill: Refrigerate your food promptly.

Take Action

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