As the warm weather appears, the wildlife will also be coming out of their winter dens. And as cute and cuddly as a red fox or raccoon may appear, they could be life threatening to you and your cat or dog.
In most parts of the Southeast, fox, skunk, and raccoon are carriers of the rabies virus, even if they do not show any symptoms of the disease. And that one fact, can put an unsuspecting person in danger.
If you let your cat outside and you live in the Southeast, you need to make sure your pet is fully vaccinated against rabies. Just this week in Franklin County, Georgia, a sheriff's deputy was almost attacked and bitten by a rabid raccon.
Now, Franklin County's Environmental Health Director Louis Korff is warning people to stay away from wild animals, especially if they look sick or injured or if you see a normally nocturnal animal during the day. Just this month, Korff said he was contacted by a woman who had just left the health department in Carnesville, GA. She told Korff she had spotted a raccoon on the side of Hubbard Road that looked sick.
"She was savvy enough to know this was not a good situation and she called the Health Department and asked for me personally," Korff said.
Korff said he told the woman to remain in her vehicle. When he arrived, he said he found the raccoon, which was obviously infected and in the final stages of rabies.
"It was pawing at its face, slobbering and had pretty much lost the use of its legs, but it was very much alive," Korff said.
Korff said a Sheriff's deputy was called out to shoot the raccoon, but was almost attacked himself.
"As he got out of his vehicle the racoon, as they will when are in the last stage of rabies, got up enough energy to lunge at the deputy, but was able to get off a shot and kill the raccoon," Korff said.
As the warm weather arrives, Korff said we can expect to see more cases of rabid wild animals. And he is warning citizens, especially children and parents, not to be tempted to try and help a wild fox, skunk or raccoon they may see during the day that looks injured.
"Very likely, if someone had walked up to this raccoon, they would have been able to get quite close to this creature before trouble started," Korff said. "And that's the problem. Never approach a wild creature no matter what your heart tells you. If you see a wild animal that looks injured, dial 911. That's the answer."
There is no cure for rabies either in animals or humans once the virus reaches the brain. Depending on where the bite occurs, the virus can travel to the brain within hours or days. Humans can recover if they are treated with a series of post exposure shots as soon as possible after an attack. The shots stop the virus from reaching the brain. Once in the brain, the disease is fatal.
Korff said last year three people in Franklin County had to undergo the series of post exposure shots after being bitten by rabid or potentially rabid animals. All three have recovered, but it the painful and expensive shots could have been avoided had the people used their head and not their heart.
In the most serious case, a woman in Carnesville had to undergo the post exposure shots after she was attacked by a rabid cat that strayed into her yard. The woman thought the cat was sick and reached out to pick it up. When she did, it bit her on the hands and arms. She was able to get the shots within hours. Another man who was hunting was attacked by a raccoon he thought was dead. When he tried to pick the animal up, it bit him.
And an elderly Lavonia, GA woman also had to have the post exposure shots when she was bitten by a stray dog in her yard. The dog was laying her driveway near its dead puppy. As walked closer to the dog, it bit her. The dog ran off and was never found. In that case, the dog, a known stray, could not be quarantined for 40 days as required under Georgia law, so she had to undergo the shots as a preventative measure.
"The best thing you can do is make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies," Korff said. "Many rural counties and local animal shelters offer discount rabies vaccines in the spring. For the price of a pack of cigarettes, you can make sure your pets are protected."