Frequently our encounters with wildlife are completely safe, but there are always risks for injury or disease if bitten or scratched.
In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about the prevention and presence of rabies.
Recently there have been a couple of stories about rabid animals in the news, so I thought this would be a timely topic. Rabies is a viral infection carried in mammals, especially skunks, bats, raccoons, foxes, woodchucks, cats and dogs. It is spread by saliva, through a bite or a skin wound. Once contracted, it affects the central nervous system. Humans can undergo a series of injections soon after exposure as a way of preventative treatment that has proven highly successful. Without treatment, the disease is invariably fatal. Only three humans have been documented to survive rabies in the United States. The first was right here in Wisconsin, and her treatment became known as the Milwaukee Protocol, which was used most recently in 2011 to save an 8 year old girl who was scratched by a rabid stray cat.
There have only been four recorded cases of human rabies in Wisconsin the last fifty years, and all four cases acquired the disease from bats. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, skunks were historically the most common species infected by rabies, but bats passed them up around the year 2000. Looking at a study from 2006-2010, animal rabies diagnosed in Wisconsin seemed to be primarily in southeastern and far western portions of the state; reports of rabies in the Northwoods were much less frequent.
We always tell people to be on the alert if they see an animal acting strangely. What is strange behavior for a wild animal? Typically, coming out and moving about during the day is strange, as is an apparent lack of fear of humans. Rabies can make animals agitated and confused. They would have an uneven gait, or stumble when walking. They are often drooling excessively or have frothy saliva. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is easy to see, but occurs only later in the development of the disease. A wild animal that licks, scratches, or bites a pet or person might look healthy at the time but still carry the virus. That being said, I frequently get calls this time of year about concerns with animals out during daylight hours which turn out to be completely fine. This is because we have some animals, like red fox, that have young who are starting to stray from home a bit and find ways to entertain themselves while unattended. So not every animal wandering aimlessly during the day is rabid; some are just bored or curious.
The best way to avoid rabies is to take precautions and be safe. Do not handle wild animals. If you do handle wild animals, wear gloves. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth; basically, keep your hands away from your face. If you set a live trap for an animal, cover it first with a dog food bag or a piece of carpeting to help keep the animal calm and prevent it from having the chance to bite you. If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, one of the most effective ways to prevent rabies infection is immediate, thorough cleansing of the wound with liberal amounts of soap and water for fifteen minutes. Bite victims should also notify their local county health department to ensure that the biting animal is observed or tested for rabies. If bitten by an animal, it will be important to know where the animal was last seen—not only so that it can be captured before it injures any other people or pets, but because they need to be tested for rabies. If the animal is euthanized and tested quickly, it can help the bite victim avoid a series of painful and expensive injections.
The Wisconsin Department of Health and Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection have lots of rabies information available on their websites. You can also contact the county health department or ask your physician for more information. Ultimately, use common sense, take simple precautions, and be safe.
Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.