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Rabid Skunk Bites Woman in Fremont

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — May 25, 2007 – Leave the wild animals in the wild.
That’s the simplest advice the folks at Sullivan County’s Public Health Services can give to protect residents from rabies this summer.
A rabid skunk wandered into the pen with a golden retriever in the Town of Fremont late last month, bit the dog and later bit his owner.
All strange behavior for a wild animal, says Carol Ryan, the county’s public health director.
But not so strange for an animal infected with the highly contagious and often fatal rabies virus.
Wild animals, usually afraid of people, lose their inhibitions when infected with rabies.
They’re known to appear out in the open during the day, often affecting a drunken walk.
In the case in Fremont, the woman didn’t know the skunk was rabid. She just wanted to protect her dog.
“The owner moved it from the pen into the woods across the street, and the skunk subsequently chased her to her house and bit her and ran off,” Ryan said.
The next day, the skunk was back.
The woman was bit once again.
This time she called the dog control officer who called Sullivan County Public Health
They in turn called the New York State Police who arrived on scene to shoot the animal.
After preparation by a local veterinarian, the dead skunk was sent to the New York State Rabies lab for testing.
Even without the results in hand, the dog’s owner, who hasn’t been identified because of health privacy laws, was advised by public health to immediately begin treatment.
“Any wild mammal that attacks without provocation is assumed – until proven otherwise – to be rabid,” Ryan explained.
Two days later, the results were back.
The skunk was rabid.
The golden retriever, who had not received a rabies vaccination from a veterinarian, was put to sleep.
“The only choices in that case are a strict six-month confinement under difficult conditions, or destruction,” Ryan said. “It is often kinder to destroy the animal, because the poor thing has to stay shut up with minimal human contact and no ability to run or come in the house for the whole time.”
Jeffersonville veterinarian Dr. Richard Schwalb said pet owners’ best protection against rabies is keeping up with vaccinations, but he still sees at least one or two cases a year.
A dog or cat whose shots are up-to-date requires a booster as soon as possible after tangling with a rabid animal.
The six-month quarantine doesn’t apply to animals with current vaccinations, and the pet generally survives.
The State of New York requires domesticated animals be vaccinated – the number one prevention against the disease within the state.
Human vaccinations, on the other hand, are usually limited to folks in high-risk groups (veterinarians, dog control officers, etc.).
According to the New York State Department of Health, the “vaccinated pets act as a barrier between wild animals and people to keep the rabies virus from spreading.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta lists rabies as a rare cause of death in humans in America, and just 55,000 people die each year from the disease worldwide.
To ensure Americans who encounter rabies survive the virus that would otherwise attack the central nervous system, Ryan said public health officers recommend immediate treatment.
A series of post-exposure shots is given as soon as possible after exposure.
The complete series takes 28 days, but CDC reports show “there have been no vaccine failures in the United States (i.e. someone developed rabies) when [post-exposure vaccine] was given promptly and appropriately after an exposure.”
Ryan said the real key is to avoid exposure in the first place.
Warm weather means more people and their pets are spending time in the outdoors.
That means an increased chance they will meet up with a wild animal.
Her advice is simple:
• “Don’t nurture or feed wildlife. Wild animals are not protected against rabies and could transmit rabies or other diseases.”
• “Call the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) or your local law enforcement if a wild animal is threatening you or is exhibiting unusual behavior such as abnormal tameness or erratic walking, etc. DEC can also refer you to a local wildlife rehabilitator who is licensed to handle these animals.
• “Additional symptoms of rabies can include the following: a nocturnal animal wandering in daylight, hind leg paralysis indicated by dragging one or both legs, a great deal of drooling (caused by paralysis of the throat muscles preventing the animal from swallowing), either a wild animal being abnormally tame or chasing a person and attacking. (It is normal for an animal that is injured to bite someone handling it.  For example, if a dog is hit by a car, it will often attack a person who stops and picks it up, because of the pain and fear.)
• “Only mammals become rabid. Very small mammals such as moles and mice, however, are generally not felt to be a threat for rabies because they do not survive an attack by a larger rabid animal. Keep children away from squirrels and chipmunks: they often bite and then parents call the health department fearful about rabies.  It is highly unusual for a chipmunk or squirrel to be rabid, but the anxiety can be avoided by warning children not to play with these small animals.   About 4 percent of captured bats have rabies.
• “Vaccinate your pets and keep their vaccinations up to date so they don’t have to be destroyed if they have exposure to a rabid animal.  Also, an unvaccinated pet could become rabid from an exposure that the owner is unaware of and subsequently transmit rabies through a bite to a person or animal.”
Residents who have encountered a suspected rabid animal can call Public Health’s office in Liberty at 292-0100 for more help.
Diagnosis of rabies can only be done after an animal is dead by testing the tissues of its brain, which means sending off the animal to the state lab – which is what they did with the skunk in Fremont.

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