What everyone should know about animal bites

Cape seals present a new rabies risk

Thursday, June 20 2024

Dogs are not the only animal that can transmit rabies to humans, although this is the most common cause of human rabies. Livestock, cats, wildlife, especially, mongooses and bats are all potential carriers of the disease, and new concerns have been raised after a Cape fur seal tested positive for rabies.

KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, North West and Limpopo have seen the lion’s share of documented rabies cases in recent years, yet the detection of animal rabies in Cape Town is an important reminder that all animal bites should be medically assessed for rabies risk. Greater public awareness of rabies and ongoing vigilance is needed throughout South Africa,” says Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Medicross Tokai.

“Previously, seal bites have been considered low risk for rabies, however recent developments indicate the urgent need for post-exposure prophylaxis and antibiotics, as advised by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases [NICD],” he says.

The virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals, either when they bite or when their saliva comes into contact with an open wound or the eyes, nose or mouth of another animal or an individual.





“Anyone who is bitten by an animal should always seek emergency medical care, no matter how small the wound is, for an assessment, a rabies risk screening with possible tetanus immunisation as treatment for potential exposure to the virus that causes rabies must start as soon as possible,” says Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager emergency, trauma, transplant, and corporate social investment.

The most important step for anyone who is bitten is to immediately clean the wound with soap and clean running water for 10 minutes to help wash as much of the virus away as possible, then seek medical care.

“Even if the wound is not bleeding badly, there should be no delay in seeking treatment. Rabid animals may be aggressive or even over friendly. This is abnormal behaviour for the species and they are therefore more likely to bite other creatures and humans. Cows with rabies may look like they are choking, and wild animals such as bucks may display unusual behaviour, such as coming closer to humans that they are not habituated to. However, noticeable signs of rabies are not always present, and so a medical assessment is essential.”

She points out that any domesticated animal that bites a human that does not have a complete and current record of vaccinations could pose a rabies risk to humans and other animals.

“Teach adults and children not to approach animals they do not know, and not to provoke any animal. It is especially important not to feed wildlife or approach animals that are wild, and be sure to have your dogs, cats and other domesticated animals vaccinated yearly for rabies, as required,” she says.

Netcare’s National Trauma Injury Prevention Programme (NTIPP) aims to reduce the risk of healthy people experiencing traumatic injuries through educational initiatives and sharing practical advice to promote safer behaviours. This includes a partnership with the Global Alliance on Rabies Control (GARC) on an informative booklet on safety around animals, which is supported by the World Health Organization. Download it for free in isiZulu; isiXhosa; Afrikaans; Shona and English.

“As far as possible, keep pets away from wild or stray animals. This not only helps to protect your family and your animals but also contributes to breaking the cycle of rabies transmission to animals in the wild that cannot be vaccinated,” Toubkin advises.

Dr Vincent notes that post-exposure vaccination for rabies usually involves a series of injections for a period of up to a month. “If treatment commences as soon as possible, and the full course is correctly administered, humans exposed to rabies will almost certainly not develop the disease. This is the only chance of preventing the progression of the virus, as once a person develops clinical signs of rabies, there is no cure, and the condition is invariably fatal.

“The good news is that rabies infection in humans is preventable. With timeous treatment and adherence to the recommended precautions, we can all protect ourselves against this disease.”

What to do in the event of potential rabies exposure:

  • Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Consult a doctor, clinic, or hospital emergency department immediately.
  • If there is a potential rabies risk, a series of rabies vaccinations is needed. Post-exposure prophylaxis must start as soon as possible after the bite.
  • Depending on the severity of the injury, your doctor may also inject rabies immunoglobulin into the wound. Rabies immunoglobin is only available at certain major hospital centres, however this can be administered in the first week following the bite.
  • Keep a record of the dates of each rabies vaccination and complete the course as medically instructed.

Protect your family against rabies:

  • Ensure your pets and livestock’s rabies vaccinations are up to date.
  • Avoid contact with wild, stray, or unfamiliar animals.
  • Keep your domesticated animals away from animals that may not be vaccinated or any wild animal carcasses.
  • If you know you are travelling to a rural or remote area where rabies is endemic, it is worth considering travel clinic visit for pre-exposure vaccination, especially for young children. The huge benefit of this is that it provides lifelong immunity and if exposed just two vaccinations are needed on the day of the bite and the third day following the bite.
  • Educate your children about the risks of rabies and ensure friends, family, and childminders know about the risks of rabies and the urgency of seeking medical attention for potential exposure.

To book an appointment with a Netcare Medicross Medical and Dental Centre near you, visit or make use of the Netcare App.


Notes to editor

Looking for a medical appointment? Netcare appointmed™ will make appointments for YOU with specialists practising at Netcare hospitals, GPs, and dentists at Medicross medical and dental centres, and specialists at Akeso mental health facilities. Simply request an appointment online at or phone Netcare appointmed™  on 0860 555 565, Mondays to Fridays between 08:00 and 17:00.

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For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.

Issued by:     MNA on behalf of Netcare Medicross Tokai and Netcare Trauma Division
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and
Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone:  (011) 469 3016
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