The following are the 10 most commonly asked questions about rabies, with answers provided by health authorities and the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy:

1. What is rabies?

Rabies is a virus that affects the nerve tissue of its victim. It is found worldwide.

2. Is it always fatal?

Almost without exception, yes, once the symptoms appear. There have been only three reported cases of survival following the onslaught of the disease, and many medical experts question even those reports.

3. How do animals catch it?

By being bitten by or coming into contact with the saliva of an infected animal through a cut, wound or the mucous membranes.

4. How do humans catch it?

By being bitten by or coming into contact with the saliva of an infected animal or, less frequently, another person. Rabies can just as easily enter the body through a scratch and the mucous membranes as through a bite. In rare cases, a person can contract the disease by handling a recently dead rabid animal.

5. What is the progress of the disease in humans?

The virus initially concentrates in the victim's brain, then spreads into the salivary glands and saliva.

The time elapsed before the symptoms become apparent can range from 10 days to as long as a year but generally averages 30 to 50 days. The symptoms may appear sooner if the victim was bitten on the head or had numerous bites.

Generally, the first symptom of rabies is a tingling or numbing sensation at the site of the original bite, which may even have healed. Depression, restlessness and fever follow. The restlessness increases until the victim becomes uncontrollably excited and there is heavy salivation. Excruciating throat spasms that can be triggered by the slightest disturbance begin. Because the victim is often unable to drink water without triggering them, rabies became known as hydrophobia, which means fear of water.

The victim dies, either from asphyxia, exhaustion, paralysis or a combination of them, within three to 10 days.

The last rabies victim in Maryland was an Elkton woman who died in 1976 after being bitten on the finger by a bat.

6. What animals can carry rabies?

Rabies infects mammals, most often meat-eating mammals. Although rabid dogs are the most common transmitter of the disease to humans worldwide, the widespread requirement that pets be vaccinated for rabies in the United States has reduced that danger here. Wild animals remain the largest threat. But large numbers of unvaccinated pets, especially cats, remain.

The wild animals most likely to be carriers are raccoons, foxes, bats and skunks. Raccoons are the major carriers in the current Washington area outbreak.

Rabbits and rodents, like rats, mice, and squirrels, are rarely infected.

7. How can you tell if an animal is rabid?

A foaming mouth is only one of the symptoms of rabies in animals. In fact, rabid animals are just as likely to have "dumb rabies" as the more dramatic "furious rabies."

Animals with dumb rabies may appear lethargic, weak and nonaggressive. They also may appear to have difficulty swallowing. The animal's hindquarters may seem to be sore and sensitive to touch.

Rabid wild animals also may appear passive. Any wild animal that allows itself to be approached should be immediately suspect. Nocturnal animals, among them skunks and raccoons, spotted during daylight should be considered rabid, too.

8. What should you do if you think an animal is rabid?

Do not touch the animal. Telephone your local health department or animal shelter for assistance. Those numbers are:

Montgomery County, call the Animal Shelter, 279-1823. The shelter lends wild animal traps for a $25 refundable deposit.

Prince George's County, call the Animal Shelter, 336-3221 or the Wildlife Administration, 372-8128. The Wildlife Administration lends animal traps for a $10 refundable deposit. Call in advance to reserve a trap.

9. What should you do if you come in contact with or are bitten by an animal you think is rabid?

Contact your doctor immediately or call your local health department. The contaminated area should be immediately and thoroughly cleansed with warm soapy water and soaked for about 10 minutes. Once the contaminated area has dried, iodine should be applied liberally.

10. What can you do to help fight the current outbreak?

Immunize your pet against rabies. Cats are particularly vulnerable because they are allowed more freedom than dogs and thus are more likely to be exposed to rabid wildlife.

Montgomery County is holding free rabies vaccination clinics for dogs only, 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, in the county parking garage, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville; for cats only, 2 to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at the county animal shelter, 1420 East Gude Dr., Rockville.

Prince George's County has no clinics scheduled.

Prince George's County requires rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats. Montgomery County requires vaccinations for dogs and is considering a law to require the shots for cats.

Other tips:

Do not keep wild animals as pets. There is no approved rabies vaccination for wild animals. In fact, they may actually contract the disease if they are given the same vaccine used for dogs and cats.

Do not feed wild animals or leave pet food outdoors where it can attract wild animals. Keep lids tight on trash cans. Do not put garbage bags on sidewalks or streets until pickup day.

Block off holes through which a wild animal could enter your house, garage or shed. Pay particular attention to chimneys.

Persons who come in frequent contact with wild animals, such as game wardens, veterinarians, animal shelter employes and trappers, are encouraged to take human pre-exposure rabies vaccination shots.