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Animal Specimen Testing

Rabies testing in animal specimens consists of microscopic examination of brain tissue samples using an immunofluorescence staining technique. Results are confirmed by virus isolation in a cell culture system. All local health departments should submit specimens using the Electronic Submission for Animal Rabies through the Health Commerce System. For parties that do not have access to the Health Commerce System, such as veterinary practices, pest control companies and wildlife rehabilitators, a copy of the animal rabies specimen history form may be filled out, printed and included with the specimens according to specimen packaging instructions.

Specimen Collection 

Do not submit live animals. The animal should be humanely euthanized without damage to the head. The head must then be removed from the body and submitted intact for examination except in the case of bats where the entire animal should be submitted. For livestock, samples of all 3 lobes of the cerebellum (equal to 2 walnuts) and a complete cross-section of the brainstem are required and may be removed through the foramen magnum. The cerebellum and brainstem samples must be placed in a small, crush-resistant plastic canister or tub, then sent to the lab in the standard New York rabies specimen shipping container according to the provided detailed instructions. Decapitation and livestock brain sample extraction can best be performed at a co-operating veterinary hospital.

Authorization for submission of specimens for rabies diagnosis must be obtained from the local health authority. Bites and other exposures to saliva or nervous tissue from animals suspected of having rabies must be reported to the local health authority. 

Questions regarding submission of specimens and the handling of animal bites should be directed to the Rabies Laboratory weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at (518) 485-6464. Emergency weekend or holiday examinations must be arranged with the laboratory by the local health authority or should be directed to the Duty Officer at (866) 881-2809.

Specimen Storage

Specimens must be preserved by refrigeration. Freezing should be avoided, but is acceptable if refrigeration is not possible. Tissues must not be fixed with chemical preservatives.

Specimen preparation for shipping

Although the rabies specified shipping container provided is compliant with current federal shipping regulations, the shipper is responsible for the proper packaging and labeling of diagnostic specimens. Tools, cages and other surfaces potentially contaminated with infectious saliva or blood can be disinfected with a 10% solution of sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) in water

Shipping sets include:

  • One pre-assembled shipping container, including
    • Outer cardboard box
    • EPS cooler
    • 2 biohazard pressure bags
  • Packing instructions are printed on top-inner flaps of the outer cardboard box.
  • Two gel packs of refrigerant (store frozen until needed).
  • Two plastic bags (13 x 20 x 4 ml) for the animal head, livestock or other large animal brain, or entire bat.
  • One large plastic bag that surrounds the closed EPS cooler.
  • Two absorbent sheets which are to be placed in biohazard pressure bags along with the specimen.
  • Two blank rabies history forms with directions for collection and submission of specimens.
  • One zip-lock bag for the rabies history forms.

Packing Directions:

  1. Remove the head from the body of the animal (except bats-which are shipped whole and livestock) and place the head in a small plastic bag.
    • When shipping samples consisting of only cerebellum and brain stem (livestock submissions), first place the brain tissue in a small, hard plastic container, then place in the small plastic bag.
    • When shipping more than one specimen in the container (bats), be certain that: each specimen is individually bagged to prevent cross contamination and that each specimen is clearly identified.
    • Shipping containers can be ordered by calling 518-474-4175.
  2. Cool specimen in refrigerator or freezer, whenever possible, before packaging, to enhance preservation (especially in warm weather).
  3. If sharp objects protrude from the specimen (bone fragments, porcupine quills), wrap specimen in several layers of newspaper prior to putting the specimen into plastic bag.
  4. Place the bagged specimen into the biohazard pressure bag along with the sheet of absorbent.
  5. Seal the biohazard specimen bag:
    1. Remove the tape adhesive backing from the bag.
    2. Fold the bag at the slit and orient lines onto corresponding lines.
    3. Press hard from the center working outward.
    4. Do not force larger heads into the biohazard pressure bag.  
    5. If the head is too large for the biohazard pressure bag, contact the Rabies Laboratory (518-485-6464) for assistance.
  6. Complete the history form on-line at Health Commerce System or fill out the one provided with the shipper.
    • Complete one form per sample.
    • The identification on the bag containing the specimen and the history form should be identical. If the specimen bag is labeled “bat #1-Smith”, then the history should also have the identification “bat #1-Smith”, written clearly and in indelible ink.
    • Answer all questions as accurately as possible. The information provided will be used to report results to the local health authority.
  7. Place the completed rabies history form in the zip-lock bag provided.
  8. Place the zip-lock bag on top of the EPS cooler.
  9. Follow packaging instructions printed on the inside flap of box.
  10. Do not use glass, wire, tag fasteners or other materials which could puncture packaging or cause injury.
  11. Wash hands.
  12. Disinfect or burn all materials contaminated in specimen preparation process.  Surfaces potentially contaminated with infectious saliva or blood can be disinfected with a 10% solution of sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) in water
  13. Next day delivery is required for all specimens

Shipping Specimens

Properly packaged specimens may be shipped directly to the Rabies Laboratory as described below. Special arrangements are necessary with carriers for weekend delivery. Local health offices may arrange transportation to the laboratory. DO NOT ship emergency specimens on Friday without prior approval for emergency testing.

To better provide rabies testing services, the New York State Department of Health has made two key changes to the requirements for specimen delivery to the Rabies Laboratory .

  • Specimens must be shipped so that they are guaranteed to arrive at the laboratory within one day after shipment.

  • For emergency testing on a Saturday, please select the ‘early Saturday morning delivery’ option.

    In addition, please note the following continuing guidance:

    • Do not ship specimens for emergency testing on Saturdays without obtaining prior approval for weekend testing from the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control (BCDC)
    • Any specimens received for which approval for emergency testing was not given will be held for testing on the next business day.

Properly packaged specimens should be shipped to the Wadsworth Center Rabies Laboratory at this address:

Griffin Laboratory
Wadsworth Center
NYS Department of Health
5668 State Farm Road
Slingerlands, NY 12159

  • When specimens are being prepared for emergency testing on Saturdays, the local health department should verify that ‘early Saturday AM delivery’ is requested and obtain a tracking number for all specimens.

  • Local health departments can continue to send in specimens that will be delivered to the laboratory on Saturday but that do not require weekend testing. These specimens should have printed on the outside of the shipping container “For Saturday Delivery, Non-Emergency”.

A delay in specimen delivery can result in specimen decomposition, unsatisfactory testing results, delays or unnecessary post-exposure prophylaxis and/or unnecessary quarantine of companion animals.

Summary of emergency animal rabies testing policy

Emergency/off-hours rabies testing of animals must be reviewed and approved by BCDC either during normal business hours at (518) 473-4439, or after hours through the NYSDOH Duty Officer at (866) 881-2809.

After consultation with BCDC, if off-hours testing is approved, the local health department must immediately notify the rabies laboratory at (518) 485-6464 during business hours, or after hours through the NYSDOH Duty Officer system at (866) 881-2809. Immediate notification of the rabies laboratory is necessary to:

  • Ensure that rabies lab technologists are available to receive and test the specimen.
  • Verify appropriate shipping will be requested so that the specimen will arrive in a timely manner.
  • Confirm to whom and how emergency testing results will be reported.

Emergency rabies testing is indicated for an animal that has bitten a human and is highly suspect for rabies infection based on species, behavior, and circumstances of the incident. Emergency testing is reserved for situations where, due to timing around weekends or holidays, it may not be possible to have the results of testing back within 3 days of the date of the exposure incident.

Some examples of incidents that should be considered for emergency testing would include:

  • A bite, or significant saliva exposure to an open wound, from abnormal acting raccoon, skunk, or fox.
  • A bite or other direct contact where a bite cannot be ruled out involving a bat (note that a bat found with a sleeping person with no known direct contact must still be tested, but would not be considered for emergency testing).
  • A known bite from domestic animal that has been examined by a veterinarian and determined to be showing signs consistent with rabies.

The rabies specimen submission policy can be found at the top of this web page.

A printable pdf of the Shipping Instructions is provided.

Results

Results are routinely available at the local health authority on the workday following arrival of the specimen at the laboratory. 

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