Recently, I have had a lot of calls about concerns of potentially rabid animals, 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 preventive treatment that has proven highly successful. Without treatment, the disease is invariably fatal. Only one human has been documented to survive rabies.
There have only been four recorded cases of human rabies in Wisconsin the last 50 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. I would be inclined to think those parts of the state with a higher occurrence are simply finding and testing more sick or dead animals because they have higher human populations and more development. Up here, animals can get sick and die in large blocks of forest without detection.
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.
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. This is something I had to train myself to do, not only when I am handling animals, but when I am in an area where there are a lot of people touching communal surfaces like shopping cart handles, handrails and so on. You touch your face or head on average two to four times a minute, believe it or not-more than 5,000 times a day. After touching an animal, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water; I try to scrub for 20 to 30 seconds, including the backs of my hands, my wrists and under the fingernails. I remember in college, one time my advanced physics lab partner observed me washing my hands. He said “you must be in the biology program.
Biologists always wash up like they are about to operate on the President.” A humorous exaggeration, but the point is valid.
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, you need to take your washing to a whole new level. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 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 15 minutes. Bite victims should also notify their local county health department to ensure that the biting animal is observed or tested for rabies.
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.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.