Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?

Katrinka of the frozen north solved the mystery of the hay bales: “to protect the trees and rock outcroppings from the attack of sliding little children on toboggans and sleds.”  I’m not sure about toboggans in Riverside Park, but we do have a range of sliding objects, including Flexible Flyers, plastic garbage can lids and cardboard boxes. And, sure enough, the hay bales are at the base of two prime sledding hills. So, thank you, Katrinka!

With one mystery solved, a new one presents. Rabies is raging through Manhattan’s raccoon population. Should we worry about our squirrels?

Bagel Brunch for New York Squirrel

I mean, what if a rabid raccoon bites a squirrel? Do squirrels get rabies? Can they transmit it?

NYC Rat by laverrue /Flickr.com

Worse, and please forgive me for putting the image in your heads, what about rabid rats?

Well, dear reader, knowing these questions have been keeping you up at night, I’ve scoured the web for answers.

All mammals can get rabies. The disease is almost always transmitted by a bite or scratch, but any way you can figure out to make contact between your blood stream or mucous membranes and a rabid animal’s infected saliva or brain tissue will generally do the trick.  Squirrels, rats and other small mammals can, and do, get rabies. Yet rabid rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) are very rare. Why?

Well, there seems to be no definitive answer.  The best explanation comes from Dr. Jean S. Smith at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control.

Encounter with a Carnivore (Randy Son of Robert/Flickr.com)

In 2001, Dr. Smith told the New York Times that “rats probably would not survive an encounter with an infected carnivore. They are food for carnivores, and so would not be around to transmit the disease to people.” Ditto for squirrels and bunnies.

Dr. Smith says the shape of a rodent’s mouth, or some unidentified factor, may impede transmission. And she maintains that since rats don’t fight much among themselves (and squirrels even less), their behavior doesn’t lead to the bites that transmit infection within the species.

photo by Valerie Everett/Flickr.com

Well, okay, but unusually aggressive behavior is characteristic of the disease. Once an animal is symptomatic, the pacific nature of its species may no longer be relevant.  There’s at least one documented case of a rabid squirrel that was captured and tested only after an unprovoked bite on a human.

And what about those rare rabid squirrels? Why did they survive the bite? Scientists speculate they may have been infected by bats, which are common carriers of rabies. Since a bat’s tiny teeth would not cause serious damage, those squirrels survived to develop symptoms.

Tiny Bat, Big Teeth by Wilson B /Flickr.com

Next up on the rabies agenda, the question you’ve all been waiting for: what is NYC’s policy on vaccinating its raccoons and conserving the remainder of the population?  I’m planning a visit soon to Central Park to see if the Urban Park Rangers can answer some questions. Stay tuned.

Explore posts in the same categories: In the City, January, rabies, raccoons, Rodents (other than squirrels), Squirrels, Uncategorized, Wildlife/Natural History

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7 Comments on “Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?”

  1. According to my opinion Rabies affect the nervous system of pet according to my opinion to protect pet from rabies Keep vaccinations up to date for all dogs, cats, and ferrets. This requirement is important not only to keep your pets from getting rabies, but also to provide a barrier of protection for you, if your animal is bitten by a rabid wild animal. Keep your pets under direct supervision so they do not come in contact with wild animals. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance for the animal immediately.

  2. RLC Says:

    Just wanted to comment that this post is very interesting and (refreshingly) well written. I moved a few years ago to an area without squirrels (because the ground is like solid granite), and I miss seeing them. I was doing a little online research and came upon this informative post for which I thank you.

  3. Cathy Says:

    Thanks for posting this. Has anyone been able to get a more definitive and recent statement out of NYC Dept. of Health? Our building’s property is right across the street from Central Park, and we are also fortunate to have a large number of mature and tall trees on our own property, including trees close to the balconies of many residents. We have problems with very aggressive squirrel families jumping from the trees onto the balconies and setting up “nests” there. One large group (approx. 15)moved into the canopied entrance to our building. The canopy was replaced and the new one is supposedly squirrel proof. The squirrels are very destructive, eating cushions and heavy plastic rubbermaid deck storage boxes. A few were captured in the Have-A-Heart humane trap and released in the park. They returned to the same balcony the next day. when a raccoon was also spotted on a nearby branch watching the show. They squirrels are not afraid of people. No food is left out there, and some people especially with young children are afraid to use their balconies and fear the animals may eat through the metal window screens.
    It has been suggested that the tree limbs close to our building be pruned back to the tree trunk. (Minimal pruning hasn’t worked.) We really don’t want to do this, but are running out of alternatives. Proven suggestions most welcome. Thanks!

    • Melissa Says:

      Hello Cathy, Thanks for stopping by Out walking the dog. Rabies in squirrels is so extremely rare that no one is too concerned about it. Meanwhile the trapping and vaccinating of the park’s raccoons is well underway. Here is my latest update on the rabies situation. (I’ll be posting another in the next couple of weeks.)

      Most of the squirrel prevention tips I came across dealt with suburban single-home squirrel issues. However Cornell University’s Wildlife Damage Management Fact Sheet on Tree squirrels suggests the following:

      “To prevent squirrels from climbing up trees …fasten a 2-foot band of sheet metal around the trunk of the tree 6 to 8 feet above the ground. Sheet metal can be fastened by wrapping wires around the trunk and attaching them together with springs. This method allows the sheet metal to spread as the tree grows. All trees that need protection, plus all trees within jumping distance (branches within 6 to 8 feet), should be protected with a sheet metal band. Tree limbs also should be trimmed to 6 to 8 feet from buildings to prevent squirrels from leaping onto buildings.”

      Sounds smart and humane.

      Good luck! Stop by Out walking the dog again, and let us know what you decided to try.

  4. I’ll look into that question. I believe it was brought from the Old World, but am not sure. And yes, that bat is pretty scary. The teeth look huge, too, until you see how tiny the entire animal is.

  5. Charlotte Says:

    Even though I’m partial, I can understand apologizing for the image of rabid rats but then you show us Frankenstein the tiny bat! Yikes! I’m going to have nightmares tonight! Very good explanation of this whole scary mess. My question, when did rabies actually take hold as a disease?

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