The Florida Department of Health this week warned residents in unincorporated Palm Beach County that a rabid raccoon was found in their vicinity. Unfortunately, raccoon was engaged in an altercation with a dog who is now on a 45 day watch.
Rabies is a serious and highly contagious virus and people tend to get a little edgy when they hear a rabies alert. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 59, 000 people will die from rabies this year. But educated folks know what to do if they think they may have spotted an infected animal.
And now, you will too.
If you understand the habits of the urban wildlife in your area you’ll be more comfortable with them. As scores of builders invade acres of the land where the wild things were, scores of species are being wiped out. Incredibly, there are some animals left. We call them “urban wildlife.”You can read about urban wildlife and rabies at the Merck Veterinary Manual here.
A responsible dog or cat owner keeps his companion animal safe at all times by keeping him in the house, sleeping soundly on the sofa, or of course, your bed, where you can keep an eye on him. After all, what’s the point of having a companion animal if he’s not companionable?
When you aren’t home, your pet should be safely confined to the inside of your home where only invasive bad guys with unpleasant purposes can get at him. It’s the best you can do for your own dear Fido or Fluffy-cat when you’re gone. Though that strategy is not always foolproof. One dog owner told me her home was broken into and her small, female pit-bullish type canine was inside. The criminals ran upstairs and got a sheet off the bed and tossed it over the dog, pulling the ends tight so as to encase the dog in the sheet, rendering her unable to sound an alarm or defend her home. The owner was shocked and devastated, of course, but at least she found comfort in the knowledge she took every precaution to keep her dog safe.
Even so, locking your home and ensuring it is secure is the best any of us can do. But leaving an animal outside without your supervision is an irresponsible practice because you are not ensuring her safety and she can fall prey to urban wildlife or stray domestic animals with a variety of diseases, rabies included.
Understanding the habits of rabies-vector species will help you know when to panic and when to simply stop and admire the animal. For example, raccoons are nocturnal. It would stand to reason, then, that a raccoon who is out having a midday stroll must be rabid because she isn’t behaving naturally. This popular assumption is a myth, however. According to the Humane Society of the United States, a raccoon out during the day may simply be a procrastinator (like you, perhaps?) She could be engaged in tasks she could not complete during the night. (Read more on raccoons here). So, you don’t necessarily have to run inside and call an animal cop; but you can play detective and watch the animal from a safe distance. Clues an animal may be infected with the rabies virus include walking as if he’s drunk (see if he can say the ABC’s backwards, starting with Z); ignoring the loud racket being made by the landscape guys (how can anyone ignore the sound of those damn ubiquitous blowers?); deliberately injuring himself while vehemently claiming he’s not a masochist; meandering around as if he has no particular plan; and exhibiting a schmaltzy stream of repugnant goo discharged from one or more body cavities. If you see these signs, the animal may have furious rabies, so call Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control. If the animal is lacking all of those signs but seems to be in distress or injured, still call PBC AC&C because, to make matters more complicated, he could be suffering from another form of rabies called dumb rabies. This strain of the rabies virus renders the victim ataxic. So if your spidey sense is telling you he’s not quite right, call for backup. This also goes for any Mammaliaformes (including but not limited to: humans, horses, bats, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, ex-husbands, ex-wives, ex-bosses and the entire list of animals listed as warm-blooded with the exception of opossums, which are not considered a rabies-vector species because their body temperature is too low to welcome the rabies virus so their chance of getting the virus is very, very low. If you doubt this fact, you can take it up with the Opossum Society of the United States. Yes, it’s a thing.
If you see an otherwise healthy animal during the day that appears to be injured but not sick, call Busch Wildlife Sanctuary (for those in the north end of Palm Beach County); or the Wildlife Care Center (for those in the south end of Palm Beach County.)
Because it tends to spread quickly among vulnerable animals, everyone who owns a dog or cat knows that Palm Beach County authorities are very authoritarian about their policy that all companion animals be vaccinated against the rabies virus. So it’s best to comply with their demand. After all, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.