Butte County Public Health’s Animal Control Program issued a warning July 28 concerning the threat of rabies. They have seen an increase in skunks infected with rabies and urged the public, especially those living in areas prone to wildlife visits, to take precautions and keep current on rabies vaccination for cats and dogs.
We live in a rural area where wildlife abounds, such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and bats. Interestingly, these same animals account for the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species in the United States, a fact reinforced by the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Report of 2018. Domestic animals (cats, dogs, horses, sheep, goats, and cattle) accounted for 7.3% of reported rabies to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Wildlife accounted for 92.7% of animal rabies cases reported, which represented a 13.2% increase since 2017. In 2018, bats represented 33.0% of all animal rabies cases, followed by raccoons (30.3%), skunks (20.3%), and foxes ( 7.2%).
While many of us may never come across a rabid wild animal, the possibility exists that one of our pets will, especially when allowed to roam freely. Therein lies the risk to humans. According to the World Health Organization domestic dogs, through bites or deep scratches, transmitted the rabies virus in more than 99% of the human cases reported. Of note, children between the ages of 5–14 years of age are the most frequent victims, which is not surprising since the highest incidence of dog bite injuries occurs within the same parameters.
Since rabies has been a popular theme in many novels and films, opinion often is that a rabid animal can be easily identified because of the foaming at the mouth, the baring of teeth with overt aggressiveness, and the uncontrollable drooling. Unfortunately, these symptoms are usually indicative of the latter stages of the disease.
What one may find, instead, is that a wild animal may lose its dread of humans and come within close proximity. Another signal could be a nocturnal animal becoming active during the day. Neither sign is representative of the prevailing perception. The best way to assess risk is to recognize any unusual behavior.
Wildlife is more likely to be rabid than our domestic animals. Our amount of contact with domestics is typically greater than our contact with wild animals. When a rabid wild animal does infect a pet of ours, our risk in contracting the disease greatly increases. So you might ask “Why all the concern?” The concern is that once a person begins to show signs of rabies their chances of survival are extremely poor.
The first signs of rabies mimic typical flu symptoms such as fever, general weakness, and headache. Within days other symptoms appear such as insomnia, anxiety, confusion, and agitation. As the disease continues to progress, delirium, abnormal behavior, and hallucinations occur. Shortly thereafter organ failure occurs and death ensues. Therefore, all of us should make every effort to limit possible rabies exposure and to provide adequate immunity to our pets.
To limit possible exposure, we begin by vaccinating our pets. According to California law, all dogs over four months old are required to be vaccinated for rabies. It is also highly encouraged that other animals, like cats and horses that are outdoors and have the possibility of contact with wild animals, also be vaccinated. Unfortunately, there will always be those who will not or do not vaccinate their animals.
Unvaccinated animals allowed to roam outdoors, without adequate supervision, are exposed to wild animal vectors and other domestics that could be infected. In addition, avoiding contact with wild animals or any pet that is unfamiliar can aid in preventing unnecessary exposure. A good guiding principle both adults and children should memorize is, “Love your own, leave other animals alone.”
However, if you or your pet is bitten by an unfamiliar animal, seek immediate medical or veterinary attention. In addition, report the incident as soon as possible to the Tehama County Health Services Agency (530-527-6824) or, if after-hours, call the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office at 530-529-7900 and ask for the Public Health Emergency Contact. You will also need to contact the appropriate Animal Control agency.
For the city limits of Red Bluff, animal control is handled by the Red Bluff Police Department (530-527-3131). In the city limits of Corning, the Corning Police Department (530-824-7000) manages animal control. For other areas in the county, the Sheriff’s Department (530-529-7900 ext. 1) is responsible. It is very important that the biting animal be located, safely apprehended, and assessed for rabies as soon as possible.
The California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (https://wildlife.ca.gov/Living-with-Wildlife) provides a multitude of resources in dealing with wildlife issues. However, if you find a deceased wild animal in your home, contact the above Animal Control agencies about what to do. If you remove it, be sure to wear gloves before handling it, and place it in a plastic bag. Try to avoid any direct contact but, if contact does occur, wash the affected area with soap and water as soon as is possible.
Additional information regarding Rabies can be found at the Center for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html) and on the CA Department of Health Rabies Surveillance and Prevention page (https://www.cdph .ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/Rabies.aspx).
Ronnie Casey has been volunteering with the Tehama County Animal Care Center since relocating in 2011. A retired RN, she strives to help animals in need within Tehama county. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.