Rabies messages shared: Be aware, seek treatment, keep vaccines current

Published 12:10 am Sunday, June 2, 2024

SALISBURY — With school out, temperatures up and more people being outdoors, the likelihood of people encountering stray, feral and wild animals could go up and with that, interaction with some that have rabies or other diseases could also be higher.

The Rowan County Health Department shared that since January, there have been three positive cases of rabies with two of those resulting in the individuals involved having to receive post exposure prophylaxis.

The first case, reported in January, was a raccoon with no human exposure involved, said Meredith Littell, nursing director at the health department.

The second instance involved a stray cat that was taken into the home and later showed unusual behavior. It was taken to the vet and tested, which revealed it was positive for rabies. This involved six individuals receiving treatment, she said.

The third and latest instance was a fox, which attacked two individuals in their carport as they were attempting to get into their vehicle. The fox also was tested and was positive, Littell said.

This type of behavior is “par for the course for something like rabies as it makes animals interact differently, but very scary,” Public Health Director Alyssa Harris said. “You don’t think that there might be a wild animal during the day that would attack you.”

Littell explained that post-exposure treatment for those exposed or bitten by an animal with rabies must be done at the emergency department. 

That is the only place it can be done, and “it’s advised you go as soon as you think you have been exposed or as soon as you have found out that that animal was positive that you go seek treatment,” she said.

The post-exposure treatment involves four shots over the course of two weeks, said Harris. These include the first medical visit and then a shot again on days 3, 7 and 14.

“It’s very expensive to go and get post-exposure prophylaxis,” Harris said, and oftentimes insurance may not cover it, but, “you can’t not do that.”

With these recent reports and the approach of summer and people being outside more, messages of caution, awareness and keeping pets up to date on rabies vaccines were expressed by those at the health department and Animal Services.

Making sure your domesticated animals are vaccinated for rabies is the first thing Animal Services Director Maria Pannell said she wanted to get out.

During her time there, she said the saddest call to make is telling someone that the animal that attacked their pet has rabies and the pet isn’t current on its vaccines. Therefore, she said, they have to make a choice between quarantine, which has to be for months at a veterinarian and becomes costly or to euthanize the pet.

“To save the anguish of possibly having to euthanize a pet, that $10-$15 vaccine, it just means so much to save their pets,” she said.

Vaccines are a state requirement, Pannell said, and it protects everyone. Veterinarian offices can provide them, or check for clinics that may offer them, she said.

Community Health Manager Courtney Meece said the biggest takeaway they say in public health is the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

By keeping your domesticated animals up to date on vaccines, “you’re preventing that continuation of the spread of rabies” in the event they come in contact with a wild animal.

“Our pets are like our families so we want to protect them the best we can,” said Harris, as she likewise expressed the importance of vaccines. 

A second message that both leadership at the health department and Animal Services passed along was to be aware and avoid wild animals, avoid animals you don’t know and avoid animals that are acting strange.

By using caution, Meece said, you can reduce the exposure. 

She said other ways to reduce exposure is to not feed or attempt to handle wild animals, secure garbage cans and food sources so you’re not attracting wildlife to you and also teach children not to approach or try to touch wild animals.

People see a baby wild animal and want to touch it because it’s so cute, Harris said, but she stressed the importance to “not touch even baby wild animals because you could have that exposure.”  

She said this same thing is happening elsewhere as she spoke with the health director in Montgomery County and they too were seeing cases.

So the message is to be smart and be aware.

As Harris said, more animals are coming out into the spaces where we exist and so just having that awareness can go a long way in preventing.”

And if one does see an animal that is acting out of the ordinary, Meece said to call Animal Services at 704-216-7768 and select option 2 to be connected with an animal enforcement officer. 

Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and after hours, she said, they have suggested that all calls should be made to 9-1-1 to be connected with an animal enforcement officer.

Pannell said to call them at Animal Services if anything appears weird and through conversation they can decide if they need to go and investigate.

If a domestic animal is fine and friendly, and just appears to be lost, she felt fine saying it’s OK to look for a tag. However, if they are standoffish and walk away from you, she said to call them.

“There’s no point to risk getting bitten because not only does it affect the human but then the animal has to go into quarantine and it could potentially put the animal’s life in danger,” Pannell said.

As for wildlife, “I would absolutely say don’t mess with it,” she said. 

If it’s acting sick, call Animal Services and if it’s fine but in a public space or your yard, they direct people to contact Wildlife Control.

Knowing the symptoms of rabies is also important as they can appear different.

Littell said symptoms are usually neurologic, so it’s going to be their behavior, they tend to be more aggressive, there tends to be excessive drooling. 

When they talk about the foaming at the mouth, she said, “it’s that excessive drooling,” she said.

Many expect an animal with rabies to attack and be like Cujo, Pannell said. And this can be the case, but not always, as she mentioned another form of rabies where “the animal may not be aggressive. It will act sick and stagger and maybe act a little bit drunk. It may not just come at you and try to attack you.”

Meece added that a domestic animal could also have difficulty eating and swallowing and not being able to walk properly and paralysis. 

Caution was a big message that was expressed as Pannell said, “public safety is No. 1.”

Rabies is passed along through saliva and in some cases, scratches, so it’s important to seek treatment when exposed as Littell said it’s better to be safe about this than sorry.

Harris also said that if you see a dead animal, don’t touch it with your hands. Proper equipment like gloves and a mask is needed if handling something like bats that might get into your attic. Bats, along with skunks, foxes and raccoons, are the four most common animals that contract rabies, said Pannell.

There are some occupations that can receive pre-exposure vaccines through the health department, including veterinarians and their support staff and Animals Service employees, and Littell said they have had people going on mission trips where they might deal with these types of things.

Pre-exposure is a series of two vaccines, “and those are also quite costly,” she said, “but to say it is very helpful, the prevention is beneficial to that cost.”

When situations with rabies occur, Harris said they have communicable disease nurses there and when they get the notification they “dispatch one of our communicable disease nurses to make those phone calls and follow up and so we work on it on the human side. We are here to protect the public’s health and so we’ve got a great team working on that.”