Health officials say rabies a concern in E. Texas
Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor

Sept. 14, 2004 -- Although the number of confirmed cases of rabies in Hopkins County has been minimal for the past several years, the virus is a serious concern for local veterinarians as well as the zoonosis experts in the Tyler office of the Texas Department of State Health Services, according to Dr. James Wright.

"Every year, you have rabid animals," Dr. Wright said. "This year, so far, you've had one rabid skunk. Last year you had two and the year before you had one."

Franklin County had only one confirmed case of rabies reported this year. Titus County had confirmed rabies cases in seven skunks and one fox. In Lamar County, four skunks have been confirmed as having rabies.

"That doesn't mean you have not had plenty of other cases that either didn't get discovered by people or they did not go to the trouble to ship it into the laboratory for testing," Dr. Wright explained.

Rabid skunks are found virtually all over East Texas.

"I can't say that we are having more than usual," Dr. Wright said. "I can tell, essentially, that anywhere in East Texas, your pet is susceptible to getting attacked by a rabid skunk."

Dr. David Black of Broadway Vet Clinic in Sulphur Springs said his office has had two confirmed cases of rabies this summer, both occurring in skunks that were out during the daytime and were exhibiting odd behavior.

"The first one was out north of town and had tried to get in a dog pen with dogs, then was up on the front porch trying to get in the house," Dr. Black said. "The second case was south of town."

Dr. Wright and Dr. Black, agree any skunk seen out in the daylight should be suspected as being rabid.

"Generally, the way we discover a rabid skunk is somebody is in the house watching television or reading the paper, and their dog starts barking, and they go out to tell it to be quiet and there is a skunk in the yard chasing the dog," Dr. Wright said. "Skunks completely lose their fear of humans and dogs when they become rabid and appear, literally, to seek dogs to fight."

Dr. Black said aggression is not the only symptom that skunks may exhibit. Some, he said, may actually appear to be friendly.

"As far as the skunks go, sometimes they will be aggressive, but a majority of the time, they act more like cats," Dr. Black said. "They're friendly, wanting to come up to you - curious behavior acting - not the common behavior you would expect an undomesticated animal to be showing."

If a pet is infected with the rabies virus, the way it acts may change. A friendly dog might want to be alone. A shy dog might want attention. Rabid dogs often become mean, roam, make strange noises and attack people and other animals. Rabid animals may drool, and they sometimes swallow stones, sticks, or other things.

Later, as the rabid animal gets even sicker, it might have trouble chewing, swallowing, drinking or walking. It may not be able to close its mouth, and may appear to be choking. Never try to clear the throat of an animal with these signs. If you see an animal acting this way, call the local animal control agency right away.

Dogs are not the only pets that can become infected with the virus. Cats can become infected, as can horses and most other warm-blooded animals, including humans.

If a person is bitten by a rabid animal, here some steps to take that could save your life:

n/ Quickly and thoroughly wash the bite with soap and water. Rinse it well.

n/ See a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will decide if you need treatment to prevent rabies.

n/ Describe the animal that bit you - the kind, size, and color - to the doctor, local health authority or animal control officer. Tell children to get help from a policeman, school guard or other adult. Try to locate the animal or keep track of it if you know where it lives. Remember what it looked like.

n/ The local health authority needs to have the biting dog or cat tested for rabies or quarantined for 10 days. If the quarantined dog or cat is alive 10 days after the bite, it could not have given you rabies.

Biting skunks, bats, foxes, coyotes and raccoons must be tested for rabies. If you are bitten by another kind of animal, the local health authority will decide if it needs to be tested or observed for rabies.

Many years ago, rabies was commonly referred to as hydrophobia, which means a fear of water. Dr. Wright said the name may have come from the reaction of people with rabies to a drink of water.

"It's harder to discern in wild animals, but we literally see in humans that, if they have rabies ... we see if a person starts to take a drink of water and then throw it away, literally appearing to have a fear or phobia from water," he said. "We know the rabies virus can impact muscles in the throat area and can make it more difficult to swallow."

Oldtimers, the doctor suggested, may have seen similar characteristics in animals, especially skunks, leading to them to use the term "hydrophobie skunk."

Both doctors said the best way to make sure you keep your pets safe is to have them vaccinated each year.

"The cheapest insurance to protect your dog and your family is to make sure you have your pet vaccinated against rabies," Dr. Wright said.

Vaccinations are also available for cats and horses.

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