Can The Rabies Virus Spread If I Touch Something Licked By A Dog And Eat Without Washing My Hands?

Rabies is a deadly viral disease that is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. It attacks the central nervous system and causes inflammation of the brain, leading to symptoms like aggression, excessive salivation, paralysis, and ultimately death in both humans and animals. The rabies virus is most commonly spread through bites from infected animals like dogs, bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. However, contact with saliva of an infected animal can also pose a risk of rabies transmission if the saliva enters open wounds or mucous membranes.

This article provides an overview of rabies transmission, with a focus on whether the virus can spread if a person touches something contaminated with the saliva of an infected animal and then eats without washing their hands first. We will examine the different types of rabies transmission, look at the risks from indirect contact with saliva, and provide precautions people can take to avoid infection.

Rabies Virus Overview

Rabies is a viral disease that infects humans and other mammals. It is caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family called Lyssavirus (1). Rabies primarily infects the central nervous system and can lead to deadly encephalitis if left untreated.

Initial symptoms of rabies in humans include fever, headache, weakness, and discomfort or pain at the site of the bite. As the virus spreads to the brain and central nervous system, symptoms progress to anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, aggressiveness, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days after these advanced symptoms appear (2).

Rabies causes tens of thousands of deaths worldwide per year, with over 95% occurring in Africa and Asia. More than 15 million people receive rabies vaccinations globally each year after potential exposures, preventing hundreds of thousands of rabies deaths annually (2).

Dogs are the most common animal reservoir for human rabies infections worldwide. However, many other wild and domestic mammals can be infected with rabies, including bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes (3).





Transmission Through Bites

The rabies virus is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. According to the CDC, “Transmission of rabies virus usually begins when infected saliva of a host is passed to an uninfected animal; most commonly through a bite.”

Rabid dogs are the most common source of human rabies infections worldwide. The WHO reports that “Transmission can also occur when infectious material – usually saliva – comes into direct contact with human mucosa or fresh skin wounds.” Dog bites account for up to 99% of rabies cases transmitted to humans.

When an infected animal bites another animal or person, the virus present in the saliva passes into the wound. From there, it can travel to the central nervous system and cause disease.

Bites are the most efficient way for the rabies virus to be transmitted. The virus must reach nerve endings under the skin for infection to occur. Bites deliver the virus directly to these nerve endings.


Saliva Exposure Risks

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. When an infected animal bites another animal or person, the virus in the saliva enters the wound and travels to the central nervous system, causing disease. According to the CDC, “Rabies virus from the infected saliva enters the wound. Rabies virus travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and brain.” [1]

An infected animal can also spread rabies if its saliva comes into contact with mucous membranes or fresh wounds. The CDC explains that “Infection can occur from minor, even microscopic, contact between contaminated saliva and an open wound or mucous membrane in the eyes, mouth, or nose.” [2] Though bites are the most common mode of rabies transmission, scratching and licking on broken skin by an infected animal can also transmit the virus.

Simply petting or touching an infected animal, in the absence of a bite, scratch or mucous membrane contact with saliva, does not constitute a rabies exposure or require treatment. However, any contact where saliva may have entered the body requires medical assessment.

In summary, rabies spreads through infected saliva entering the body, usually via a bite wound. Saliva contact with mucous membranes or open wounds also poses a transmission risk. Prompt medical care is essential for potential rabies exposures.


Indirect Contact Transmission

The rabies virus is mainly transmitted through the bite or scratch of an infected animal. The virus is present in the saliva of rabid animals and enters the body through broken skin or mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose, or mouth. However, indirect contact with saliva from a rabid animal can also potentially transmit the virus in rare cases.

According to the CDC, non-bite exposures have caused rabies, but rarely. Indirect contact happens when infectious material, usually saliva, comes into contact with scratches, open wounds, or mucous membranes. For example, if someone touches a surface contaminated with saliva from a rabid animal and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, it is possible for transmission to occur, though unlikely. Eating food that contains saliva from a rabid animal could also potentially transmit rabies.

A case report published in PMC documents an instance where a man contracted rabies after being indirectly exposed to saliva from a rabid dog that bit his uncle. The man helped care for his uncle’s wounds and likely had contact with the infected saliva, then developed symptoms and died 20 days later. His relative who was directly bitten by the dog received rabies treatment and did not get sick, showing that indirect contact can possibly transmit rabies in rare cases. However, the risk is still very low from indirect exposure.

Overall, while indirect contact with saliva from a rabid animal can potentially transmit rabies in rare cases, the virus is still mainly spread through bites and scratches that break the skin. Precautions should be taken around saliva from potentially infected animals, but the likelihood of rabies spreading from indirect contact remains extremely low according to health authorities.

Eating Without Handwashing

There is some risk of rabies transmission if you do not wash your hands before eating after touching an animal’s saliva. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of infected animals and can enter the body through breaks in the skin or mucous membranes, including the mouth.

If you touched dried saliva and did not have any open cuts or sores on your hands, the risk is lower. However, if you had any small scratches or cracks in your skin that came into contact with fresh saliva, and then you put your unwashed hands in your mouth, there is a possibility for the virus to transmit.

According to the CDC, washing wounds immediately with soap and water for 15 minutes is an important first step after any rabies exposure. Washing hands thoroughly before eating can also help reduce the risk of accidental ingestion. However, the virus can be difficult to remove completely, so caution is warranted after touching any potentially infectious material.

While rare, there have been cases of rabies transmitted through exposure to saliva alone, without bites. So it’s advisable to be vigilant about washing hands and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after contact. If you have any concerns about possible exposure, see a doctor right away, as prompt preventive treatment may be recommended.

Overall, while not bitten, the risk of rabies from simply not washing hands before eating after touching saliva seems low. But taking proper precautions is still important, especially if the saliva was fresh. Thorough handwashing and avoiding hand-to-mouth contact until washing reduces the chances of viral transmission.

Precautions and Prevention

There are a few precautions you can take to prevent rabies transmission after potential exposure:

  • Thoroughly wash any bite wounds or scratches with soap and water. According to the CDC, “Immediate and thorough washing of all bite wounds and scratches with soap and water can reduce the risk of rabies” (
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching animals, their food, or supplies.
  • Get post-exposure prophylaxis if you’ve been bitten by or exposed to an animal that could have rabies. The CDC recommends getting “rabies postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) right away” if you’ve been bitten or scratched (

Following basic precautions like thorough wound cleaning and handwashing can reduce your risk. Seek medical treatment promptly if you have a potential rabies exposure.

Assessing Your Risk

If you have been exposed to an animal’s saliva, it’s important to evaluate your risk of rabies infection. The CDC provides a rabies risk assessment guide to determine if you need post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment.

In general, the risk depends on the type of contact with the animal. Bites pose the highest risk, as the virus can enter the body through broken skin and saliva contact. Scratches can also allow virus entry if saliva has contaminated the wound.

For non-bite exposures like touching a surface contaminated with infectious saliva, the risk depends on if the saliva entered open wounds or mucous membranes. Eating food exposed to saliva but not washed poses a potential risk.

The health of the animal also matters. Rabid animals usually show signs of neurological problems and abnormal behavior. Healthy vaccinated pets are less likely to have rabies. Areas with low rabies rates in wild animals also have less overall risk.

Any potential exposure should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. For high risk bites, scratches and direct saliva contact, seek medical care immediately to rapidly assess your risk and need for PEP.

When to Seek Treatment

If you have been bitten by an animal or have had contact with an animal’s saliva, it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. According to the CDC, rabies immune globulin and the first dose of the rabies vaccine should be administered by a healthcare provider as soon as possible after exposure [1]. The rabies vaccine is highly effective in preventing the disease if given promptly after a potential rabies exposure.

Specifically, the CDC recommends seeking immediate medical care if [1]:

  • You were bitten by any wild mammal like a bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox
  • You were scratched or exposed to the saliva of a bat
  • You had contact with a dead or sick animal that could have rabies

In addition, the CDC advises contacting a healthcare provider for any concerning wound from an unknown animal, as well as any bite, scratch, or exposure to the saliva of domestic animals like dogs, cats, or ferrets [1]. Do not wait and see if symptoms develop – rabies is almost always fatal once signs appear, so postexposure treatment is critical.


To summarize, the rabies virus is mainly spread through the bite of an infected animal that transfers infected saliva into the wound. While extremely rare, it is possible for rabies to spread through contact with infected saliva that enters your nose, mouth or eyes. However, briefly touching something licked by a dog and then eating without washing your hands would be very unlikely to transmit rabies.

The key points are:

  • Rabies mainly spreads through infected saliva introduced directly into wounds from bites.
  • Indirect contact with infected saliva, such as on surfaces, is possible but very rare.
  • Eating after briefly touching something licked by a dog without handwashing is extremely unlikely to spread rabies.
  • However, it’s always wise to wash hands before eating as a precaution against various illnesses.
  • Seek medical advice if you have concerns after potential exposure to determine if treatment is needed.

In conclusion, while rabies can potentially spread through infected saliva exposure, brief indirect contact like touching something licked by a dog then eating without handwashing is highly unlikely to transmit rabies.

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