Big jump in animal bite cases
Morgan County Health Department sanitarians Bruce Ullom and Brian Carter have handled a total of 28 animal bite cases since February. Two cases were bites from raccoons. All other bite cases involved dogs and cats.
No animals have tested positive for rabies in the county since February, but three people have undergone the rabies shots series, Ullom said.
They couldn’t catch the raccoons to test them for rabies. The animals were aggressive and acting abnormally and were probably rabid, he said. The bites were considered rabies exposures.
Almost always fatal
Rabies is almost always fatal if people develop the symptoms before the rabies vaccinations can start.
With animal bites on the rise, Health Department officials are urging that county residents ensure that their pets are vaccinated against rabies and to use caution around pets and wildlife.
Animal bites usually increase during the spring and fall, Ullom said. Bites occur when people step on their pets in the middle of the night, a child teases an animal or an animal owner tries to break up a dog fight.
Those cases are fairly easy to deal with because the owner has the vaccination record, he said. However, people also pick up stray cats along the road and get bitten. Feral cats are a big county problem. Cats are the most common animal to carry rabies, Ullom said. Rabies cases that involve dogs running loose aren’t frequent.
In a press release, the Morgan County Health Department asked residents to be watchful of wildlife that might carry rabies.
“With warmer weather, many wild animals are moving in and out of their usual habitats creating a greater risk of contracting and transmitting rabies from an infected animal,” officials said.
Unusual behavior a sign
According to their information, most cases of rabies are seen in raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes and bats though any warm-blooded animal can carry and transmit rabies. Rabies should be suspected in any animal that is exhibiting unusual behavior and people should avoid contact with them.
Signs and symptoms of rabies include aggressive behavior, irritability, daytime activity in normally nocturnal animals, staggering, weakness or paralysis, inability to eat or drink, drooling, convulsions and frothing at the mouth.
The most common wild animal with rabies is a raccoon, Ullom said. If they’re allowing you to get close, they’re probably rabid.
Saliva is the issue, he said. If you get a rabid animal’s blood on your hand, it’s not considered exposure.
However, cleaning up a pet after an encounter with a rabid raccoon could be an exposure if there were open cuts on a person’s hand that had bled in the last 24 hours. That’s considered an open wound and a potential way of getting rabies-infected saliva into the body, Ullom said.
Wear heavy gloves
Heavy gloves should be worn at all times if coming into contact with a wild animal or an animal with suspicious symptoms to protect the hands from contact with saliva, where the rabies virus is found.
If open wounds on the hands come into contact with saliva, an individual may have to get rabies shots, depending on the kind of exposure. Post-exposure rabies vaccinations can cost $15,000 to $20,000 for the series for those that don’t have health insurance, said Health Department Administrator Margie Allgyer.
Rabies shots required
Under West Virginia Code, dogs and cats are required to be vaccinated against rabies with a vaccine that can produce immunity for three years, followed by a one-year booster and a vaccine every three years after.
Dogs and cats can’t be vaccinated before three months but must be vaccinated by six months of age.
Doctors are required to report animal bites to the Health Department, Ullom said. They contact the victim and the owner of the animal to verify the animal’s vaccination records.
They talk to the animal owner about the mandatory 10-day quarantine observation, which can be at home, a veterinary clinic or animal control. If rabies is involved, there will be a change in the animal’s health or habits during that time, he said.
They also make sure that animal bite victims have talked with their doctor about the dangers of rabies exposure and know the animal’s vaccination record. The doctor advises the victim about whether they should have rabies shots.
The Health Department tries to provide the necessary information so patients can make an informed decision, Ullom said.
Protect against rabies
Rabies is preventable if dogs and cats are vaccinated as required by law and if we stay away from feral cats and avoid any wildlife that would let you approach, he noted.
Don’t leave pet food outside. It will draw feral cats, raccoons, possums and other animals that can carry rabies, Ullom said. Secure trash and any pet food that is stored outdoors.
Other ways to protect against rabies is to stay away from strays and other people’s pets, keep wild animals out of your home and to confine your animals to your property.
Also be sure your pet’s rabies vaccinations are up-to-date.
Call Health Department sanitarians Bruce Ullom or Brian Carter with questions or concerns about animal encounters and/or rabies at 304-258-1513.