Rabies concerning area health professionals

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 25, 2000

The re-emergence of rabies in Alabama is concerning physicians, veterinarians and public health officials across the state, and following the discovery of a rabid raccoon in the Central Community earlier this month, officials in Butler County are warning citizens to make sure family pets are immunized, and, to leave wild animals alone.

Dr. Bill Watson is the county's rabies control officer and he says that rabies is still a very common disease among populations of wild animals, and prevention is the only way to keep the disease from spreading to humans.

"The best thing people can do is vaccinate their pets," Watson said. "Vaccination is the best barrier between rabies and the human population, but people should also know that wild animals are not pets, no matter how cute they might be, and they should be left alone."

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Watson said the classic signs of rabies of vicious animals foaming at the mouth, made popular by Disney's "Ole Yeller," are not the most common indicators of the disease. In fact, Watson said that lethargic, almost tame behavior in wild animals should be the first sign that the animal is infected with rabies.

"Any time you have a wild animal not acting wild, or acting contrary to nature, that is a sure sign of rabies," Watson said. He said other symptoms of the disease include aggressive behavior, wandering into areas populated by humans, or appearing to be friendly or docile. Watson said that nocturnal creatures such as raccoons and opossums will start moving around more in the day when infected, and should be avoided.

Information provided by the Butler County Health Department indicates that several exposures to children and family pets occur in Alabama each year from wild creatures wandering into a yard. Health officials warn that family pets should be vaccinated and children should be told not to touch.

Watson said that more cats than dogs are actually infected with rabies each year because of their nocturnal hunting nature, but that all pets need to be treated for rabies each year.

"We hardly ever see a family pet infected in this area, but that is because we do a good job of vaccinating the county," he said. "But pet owners should look for changes in their animals' behavior. Cats are really more dangerous because they like to hide when they get infected and then attack for no reason."

Watson said that annual rabies clinics will offer rabies vaccinations to county residents in May, for a cost of $8, but that vaccinations are available year-round through a standard office visit to any area veterinarian for $9 to $12. He also recommended that dogs be vaccinated for distemper, kennel cough, parvo and heartworm each year as part of an overall health regimen.

Rabies is a universally fatal disease in all warm-blooded animals if specialized treatment is not obtained immediately. Health officials say the cost of treatment ranges from $1,500 to $2,500 and includes the injection of rabies immune globulin in the buttocks plus five injections of anti-rabies vaccine over a 28-day period.

Health officials say the primary means of exposure is through a bite or scratch in which contaminated saliva comes in contact with the wound. Officials say that any animal suspected of rabies should be reported to the local animal control officer.