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Got rabies: skunks are top carrier in Colorado

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Brendon Bosworth | Jul 17, 2012 06:00 AM

Skunks get a bad rap. Of course, not every animal douses targets with rancid juice from their anal glands from 10 feet away, so perhaps it is deserved. In Colorado the striped mammals have recently earned a new form of notoriety that adds to their stinky status: They’ve jumped into the lead as the main carriers of rabies in the state.

Bats are usually public enemy number one when it comes to transmitting the brain-destroying virus. But as of July 13, Colorado officials have found rabies in 54 skunks compared to just 36 bats. This follows a trend: skunk rabies has been spreading across the Front Range since 2008. To date, the counties with the highest number of crazed skunks include Larimer (20), Pueblo (16) and Weld (10).

“In Colorado this year we’re seeing an outbreak of rabies in skunks in the northern Front Range area, particularly Fort Collins and western Weld County, but we have not seen it yet in Boulder or Jefferson Counties,” says Elisabeth Lawaczeck, Colorado state public health veterinarian.

SkunksOther states show different figures. In California rabid bats outnumber skunks at 60 to 6. In Arizona, sick bats and skunks are on par at 9 to 9. Nevada, meanwhile, does not have skunk rabies due to its aridity. But things may change in coming years if rabid skunks bring over the disease from California or Arizona, says Anette Rink, supervisor for the Nevada animal disease laboratory. (See the map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of this post for a visual of where rabies is concentrated across the country based on 2010 data.)

Since skunks scuttle around the ground they are more likely to come into contact with pets and livestock than bats are, which makes it easier for the disease to spread. Rabid skunks also tend to lose their fear of humans and other animals and are more likely to bite than non-infected skunks, explains Lawaczeck. Since skunk teeth are small, owners may not spot bite wounds on livestock and pets, she says.

Rabies has been confirmed in one cat, one cow and one bison in Colorado this year. Officials are waiting for lab results on the bison, but the cat and the cow had the skunk strain of the virus, Lawaczek confirmed.

Fortunately, due to modern vaccination regimes infection among pets is rare. The last time a Colorado dog caught the disease that earned Old Yeller a bullet from the smart end of young Travis’ gun (watch the video clip and weep) was in 1974. Rabies is even more rare in people. The last reported human case in Colorado was in 1931. With a cattle population of more than 2.6 million, and a human population of over 5 million, the odds of catching the disease are pretty slim.

Nonetheless, animal owners should take caution. The number of skunks that have tested positive for rabies is the “tip of the iceberg,” since not all rabid skunks are tested, says Lawaczek. While the odds of getting rabies are low, the disease is fatal in the absence of vaccinations. Vaccines offer valuable insurance, especially in areas where there are high numbers of skunks testing positive.

Lawaczek recommends that pet owners get their animals vaccinated by a vet, instead of doing home jobs with over-the-counter medication. People should clean up any pet food, trash and livestock feed that might be around their homes and attractive to skunks, she says.

Vaccinations for horses and other livestock kept in areas where skunks are known to live should be considered but would probably not be economically feasible for large herds of cattle, says Colorado state veterinarian Keith Roehr. Shots come in at about $4 each, reports the Denver Post.

Since skunks typically prefer the nighttime hours, skunks that are out in the day and behaving peculiarly are cause for concern. Ranchers could also shoot highly aggressive skunks and get them tested with the Department of Health, says Roehr.

Getting coated in skunk juice is an annoyance but rabies is lethal. Keep clear of funky skunks and get your animals those shots.

Rabies in U.S.

A map of rabies reservoirs in the U.S. based on 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In epidemiology, a reservoir is an area where a pathogen incubates, grows and multiplies.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image courtesy Tom Friedel.

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