Two dogs have been diagnosed with rabies in Colorado already this year: one in Weld County and one in Yuma County. The medical investigations into these two cases are ongoing but what is especially alarming is that one of the dogs was a 6-week-old puppy, which is unusual. The other case was an adult dog.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture Animal Health Division is cautioning all veterinarians to be on the lookout for the symptoms of rabies; they also need to discuss prevention with pet owners. This is true for both large and small animals, and veterinarians must be especially careful when examining any pets or horses if there are clinical signs present that could be suggestive of rabies.
So far this year, 34 rabid skunks have been confirmed in nine Colorado counties. The Colorado Department of Agriculture reminds pet and livestock owners that rabies is a deadly disease that can spread from skunks to other mammals, and vaccination is the single best method to protect pets and livestock.
The state veterinarian, Dr. Keith Roehr, said in a statewide release, “The Department of Agriculture would like to stress two very important points: one — livestock owners need to be aware that rabies can transfer from one species to another so they should monitor their property especially for skunks; two — our local practicing veterinarians are a key resource to help animal owners decide the best course of action to prevent the disease and to protect their animals from rabies.”
Rabies is a viral disease in mammals that infects the brain and nearly all cases result in death. The clinical appearance of rabies typically falls into two category types: “aggressive” and “dumb.” Aggressive rabies symptoms include combativeness and unusual aggressive behavior such as biting. The affected animals will commit what is termed as an “unprovoked” bite. In other words, a normal animal that would just pass you by will turn aggressive and make an effort to bite you, if affected by the virus. This “unprovoked bite” is considered very dangerous; and, if this happens, you should get to the emergency room.
There is also a “dumb” form of the disease in which the animal is lethargic, weak in one or more limbs, and unable to raise its head or make sounds because its throat and neck muscles are paralyzed. The danger here is for both veterinarians and a caring person looking closely at these animals; and, without gloves or other protection, they examine their mouth. This could cause a direct exposure to the virus.
Rabies is spread primarily through the saliva. Therefore, the bite of rabid animals causes the spread of the disease through an unsuspecting exam or a bite. Once symptoms of rabies infection appear, no cure exists; and it is virtually always fatal.
People exposed to rabies can receive appropriate treatment to prevent illness. For pets and livestock, routine rabies vaccination of animals offers good protection. Animal vaccination schedules vary depending on the animal or past history of prevention, so livestock and pet owners are urged to discuss rabies vaccination with their local veterinarian. Pet vaccination is also required by law in many jurisdictions.
“Animal owners concerned about rabies exposure need to primarily look for any dramatic behavioral changes. That is typically one of the hallmark signs that the animal may be suffering from rabies,” Dr. Roehr said. “Additionally, while house pets are often vaccinated, barn cats or outdoor pets are often forgotten. All animals in your home or on your property should be considered in the vaccination plan you discuss with your veterinarian.”
In addition to ensuring that pets and livestock are vaccinated properly against rabies, here are additional prevention steps:
- Be aware of skunks out during the day. Because they are normally nocturnal, this is abnormal behavior and these animals should be avoided.
- Be aware of areas that can be suitable habitat for skunks such as under buildings or piles of wood and under stored equipment.
- Don’t feed wild animals or allow your pets around them. Be sure to teach children to stay away from wild animals. Avoid leaving pet food outside as that may attract a wild animal.
- Contact your veterinarian right away if any of your animals are bitten or scratched by any wild animal, particularly skunks, bats, foxes or raccoons. This is not a casual recommendation, it can be very serious; and, as this is a fatal disease, you should call your veterinarian or the emergency room immediately.
- If your animals exhibit any dramatic behavioral changes, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. Isolate and avoid contact with these animals if possible.
- Rabies vaccination should be considered for horses and other equines, breeding livestock, cattle or other livestock that are housed where skunks may live.
- If you must remove a dead skunk on your property, wear rubber gloves or lift the carcass with a shovel or other tool; and double-bag it for the trash. Do not directly touch the skunk with bare hands.
Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian, and provides hospice and end of life care for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes. www.HomeWithDignity.com