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Veterinary Medicine

CSU veterinarians note surging rabies in northern Colorado and urge pet vaccinations

August 13, 2013
by Rachel Griess

Rabies is one of the oldest known animal diseases, first recorded more than 3,000 years ago, yet reports of rabies in small wild animals are surging in northern Colorado, prompting Colorado State University veterinarians to urge pet vaccinations and other precautionary measures.

kittens“One of the more frequent questions asked by our clients is whether their pet really needs a rabies vaccine,” said Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, a veterinarian at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “The short answer is, ‘Yes.’” 

Two free clinics Aug. 17

To help address the risk, CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital teamed with the Larimer Humane Society on Aug. 17 to offer two free vaccination clinics in Fort Collins for pets whose rabies vaccinations were due or overdue.

Veterinary students are donating time to assist with the clinics, and pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim is donating the vaccine.

Rabies is a deadly - but completely preventable - viral disease that can be passed among animals, and from animals to people. The rabies vaccine provides nearly 100-percent protection from the disease. Without it, a bite or scratch from an infected animal can transmit a virus that attacks the central nervous system, causing brain disorder and death.

“It is usually transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal,” Ruch-Gallie said. “The first signs of rabies include fever and lethargy. Neurologic signs follow shortly and can range from paralysis to agitation. Excess salivation and difficulty swallowing are the classic signs.”

skunkA growing concern

Rabies is a growing concern in northern Colorado because confirmed cases of the disease have spiked to record levels in small wild animals, especially skunks. Skunks – along with foxes, bats, and raccoons – are the animals most likely to transmit rabies to horses, livestock and pets. 

The number of rabid skunks reported in Colorado has increased more than 50 percent since 2010, with the first skunk rabies case in a populated part of Larimer County occurring in spring 2012, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The number of reported rabies cases is rising overall in Larimer County, now totaling 43 known infected animals: 29 skunks, six bats, four raccoons, three foxes, and one barn kitten– Larimer County’s only reported domestic feline infection in 55 years. The infected kitten reportedly bit or scratched eight people, who immediately sought medical attention for rabies.

Nearby counties likewise have reported rising rabies, including confirmation of rabies in a bull in Weld County. Horses also have been victims in northern Colorado.

“Rabid animals are often described to have behavioral changes including ‘fury,’” said Hana Van Campen, a virology expert with CSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories. “People should beware of irregular wildlife behavior, such as loss of fear of humans, appearance of a normally nocturnal species in daylight, and sudden death.”

A serious risk

The mounting number of confirmed cases among small wild animals – likely just a portion of the total – means a rising risk of rabies for horses, livestock and pets that are not vaccinated. Domestic animals account for less than 10 percent of rabies cases annually, yet pets with rabies pose serious risk to humans.

“We need to focus vaccination efforts on animals that are going to be in close contact with people,” said Dr. Robert Callan, head of Livestock Medicine and Surgery at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “With urban agriculture on the rise, it’s important that all pets are vaccinated. This includes cats, dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, swine and llamas. Rabies vaccination is an important step in minimizing the risk of transmission of rabies from animals to humans.”

Rabies information

  • Never touch a living or dead wild animal, especially a bat or skunk.
     
  • If you encounter an animal acting abnormally, contact Larimer County Animal Control, (970) 226-3647, Ext. 7.
     
  • If you have a domestic animal that might have been exposed to rabies, contact your veterinarian.
     
  • The CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories provide rabies testing for animals. For information, visit the website or call (970) 297-1281.
     
  • The CSU James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital provides rabies vaccination for large and small animals. For an appointment, call (970) 297-5000.
     
  • People who regularly work with horses, livestock, and pets are urged to know the signs of rabies and to consider vaccinating themselves to protect against the disease.