When the state announced Friday that it had diagnosed another wild animal with rabies, it may have felt like déjà vu.
The Delaware Division of Public Health already this spring and summer had announced that it had found rabies in two cats, a skunk, a deer and a fox that had contact with humans that ended with them taking vaccines to avoid the deadly illness. The animal cited Friday also was a skunk.
A higher number of rabies reports doesn’t mean there’s more rabies circulating in the state, said Delaware State Veterinarian Douglas Riley.
The amount of rabies in the wild animal popular remains steady, he said.
Instead, what Delaware residents are seeing is the result of the state stepping up its testing of animals reported to be acting oddly, especially when they are near populated areas.
Since Jan. 1, 2021, Public Health has performed rabies tests on 171 animals, 17 of which were confirmed to be rabid, which includes one dog, two raccoons, two skunks (including Friday’s), one fox, three cats, six bats, one cow and a deer.
In 2020, DPH performed rabies tests on 121 animals, four of which were confirmed to be rabid, including one raccoon, one bat and two cats. Two additional Delaware animals were tested out of state and confirmed positive, bringing the state total to six.
While there have been more cases found in animals this year, Riley said, the average number of cases hasn’t risen over the last decade.
Riley said the state is following recommendations from the National Association of State Public Health Veterans to test more to prevent infections in humans.
That doesn’t mean all calls about animals acting oddly will result in a visit from someone checking for rabies, he pointed out. But the state is testing more than it used to.
Public Health usually only reports cases in which humans have come in contact with a rabid animal. On Friday, no human was involved and the state wanted to urge people to continue to be aware of the risk of being infected.
The skunk that was the subject of Friday’s press release had attacked a stray cat that was later found dead.
“This situation is a good reminder for everyone to not touch, feed or approach stray animals. Had that cat returned to its feral colony and been infected with rabies from the attack, it could have transmitted the infection to other cats,” said Dr. Rick Hong, Public Health’s medical director, in the press release.
Rabies is a virus passed through wild animal populations, Riley said, and has the effect of working to keep those populations down.
Along with mandatory rabies vaccinations for pets, Public Health testing programs and spreading of information has helped drive down the number of people who die from rabies after becoming infected by saliva or other body fluids. Bat guana is a common source of infection.
The last Delaware fatality came in 2018 and was a woman who owned cats and had feral cats on her property. Officials were not sure how she had become infected.
Prior to that, the last death had been a boy in 1941 who was bitten by a stray dog.
Rabies attacks the central nervous system.
Public Health seeks to quickly find people who may have been in touch with rabid animals because by the time signs appear — often itching and tingling at the bite or scratch site — it’s too late to stop the progress of the infection.
Many of the rabid animals seem to be found on the edges of human habitation, such as housing developments near or including wooded areas.
Riley said rabies may seem to be on the rise partly because humans are pushing further into wild habitats with homes, businesses and even outdoor sports and recreations.
“As we push, Mother Nature or nature will push back, and that just simply means that would have come in contact with more of the reservoir for the rabies virus,” Riley said. “I don’t think it’s a problem of the wildlife trying to come into our space. I think it’s a problem of others occupying their space.”
Public Health officials say there are things people can do to minimize their chances of coming into contact with a rabid animal.
Number one: Leave wild animals and unfamiliar animals, including cats and dogs, alone even if they appear friendly.
“Wild animals need to remain wild,” said Camille Moreno Gorrin, an infectious disease epidemiologist for the state. “You can’t make them into pets. You shouldn’t be petting them, and you certainly shouldn’t be feeding them simply because you really don’t know if they do or do not have rabies. They’re not always going to be showing clinical signs when they can spread the disease.”
Number two: Get your pets — dogs, cats and ferrets vaccinated as soon as they hit six months of age. It’s a state law.
Among the state’s other suggestions:
- Don’t let pets roam free. It is especially important for pet owners who do allow their cats to roam outdoors to vaccinate them.
- Do not keep your pet’s food or water outdoors; bowls can attract wild and stray animals.
- Do not feed feral animals, including cats, as the risk of rabies in wildlife is significant.
- Keep your garbage securely covered.
- Consider vaccinating livestock and horses.
If you spot a wild animal other than a feral cat or possibly dog behaving aggressively, contact the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC) Wildlife Section at 302-739-9912 or 302-735-3600.
If you encounter a stray or feral domestic animal, such as a cat or dog, behaving aggressively, contact the Office of Animal Welfare at 302-255-4646.
Don’t throw items at an animal or make loud banging noises, which may startle the animal and cause it to attack.
If the animal is behaving aggressively or foaming at the mouth, raise your hands above your head to make yourself appear larger to the animal while slowly backing away from it.
If the animal starts coming toward you, raise your voice and yell sternly at it, “Get away!” If all that fails, use any means to protect yourself including throwing an object at the animal or trying to keep it away by using a long stick, shovel, or fishing pole.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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