By Marianne Apfelbaum and Stephanie Choate
A woodchuck that bit a South Road resident last Saturday has tested positive for rabies, and local and state health officials are urging residents to use common sense and caution around wildlife.
After being bitten, the resident killed the woodchuck and brought it to the Vermont Health Department lab for testing, where the rabies diagnosis was confirmed on Tuesday. The resident is undergoing rabies vaccination, more formally known as post-exposure prophylaxis—a regimen of one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Current vaccines are not especially painful and are given in the arm, according to the CDC.
Williston’s animal control officer, Millie Whitcomb, sent out a press release on Tuesday alerting area media about the incident and urging pet owners and those with livestock to confirm that their animals are current on their rabies vaccinations. She also suggested that pets should not be left alone outside, a sentiment echoed by Williston veterinarian Dr. Ryan Canales, who owns Long Trail Veterinary Center in Williston Village.
“People have to be very conscious of their environment,” Canales said, adding that even if a pet owner has a fenced-in yard, pets should be overseen at all times.
Canales said that if you see a skunk or a woodchuck, for example, “grab your pet and get out of there. Don’t investigate or test limits.” If your pet does engage with a wild animal, you should not intervene. “For your own safety, stay away…rabies is fatal,” he said.
According to the Vermont Department of Health website, rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease found mainly in wildlife—especially raccoons, foxes, bats, skunks and woodchucks—but can also infect domestic animals and humans. Rabies affects the central nervous system, eventually causing brain disease and death. While rabies usually causes a change in behavior, no one can tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it. Rabid animals may seem normal or can be lethargic or aggressive, losing their natural fear of other animals, humans and cars.
The South Road woodchuck is the 30th confirmed case of rabies in Vermont this year, though Vermont’s public health veterinarian, Dr. Bob Johnson, said many cases likely go unconfirmed. “There are so many cases of rabies in Chittenden County,” he said, noting that small rodents and rabbits “can get rabies, but they are not documented to have transmitted (the virus) because they die before it gets to their salivary glands.”
One suspected case in Williston happened Tuesday evening. Police were called to a Wildflower Circle residence regarding a rabbit that was acting strangely. Officer Skylar Provetto was able to capture the animal in a large plastic bag after several attempts, during which the rabbit would alternately move awkwardly toward the officer and then flop sideways and roll around on the pavement. Provetto confirmed that he thought the animal was rabid. Police said the animal was not taken to the Vermont Department of Health for testing.
Most of the 2014 Vermont cases involved raccoons. In late May, a big brown bat found in Williston tested positive for rabies.
Martha Dunbar, a USDA wildlife biologist who acts as the state’s rabies biologist, said Chittenden County is seeing more rabies cases this year than in the past, but that isn’t indicative of an overall upswing in rabies cases.
“Usually it’s cyclical in nature,” she said. “One area gets hit hard one year and one year it’s another area… The Chittenden area is getting more this year than perhaps they have in the past, but it tends to be that way.”
Last year, there were 50 confirmed cases of rabies in Vermont, none of them in Williston.
“Hundreds of cases of animal rabies have been reported throughout Vermont since 1992 and the outbreak will continue to be a problem for many years,” according to the Vermont Department of Health website.
Avoid any animal displaying strange behavior. Do not try to trap the animal by yourself. Call the rabies hotline at 1-802-223-8697 or call Williston Police at 878-6611.
If you are bitten by a wild animal or exposed to its saliva, wash the wound with soap and water and call your doctor immediately. Your doctor will decide whether you need a rabies vaccination. Untreated rabies is fatal to humans.
If you think you have found an orphaned animal, do not touch it. Visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com to find the nearest wildlife rehabilitator.
The Department of Health also recommends that residents not make their yards inviting to wild animals. Secure your trash and recyclables, make sure your compost is raccoon-proof and make sure birdfeeders are not accessible to mammals.
If you find a bat in a room with an unattended child or someone who was sleeping, the bat should be captured and tested for rabies. Only try to capture the bat if you can do so without getting bitten, and call the rabies hotline for guidance.
PROTECTING YOUR ANIMALS
Make sure your pets and livestock are vaccinated. The CDC recommends that any unvaccinated dog, cat or ferret exposed to rabies be euthanized immediately. Canales said cats are the number one animals that are not being properly vaccinated.
If your pet was wounded by a wild animal not available for testing, you should assume it has been exposed to rabies. Call your veterinarian for information on how to proceed.
Keep pets inside at night, when many wild animals are more active. If they are out during the day, keep them on a leash or in an enclosed space, since pets that roam free are more likely to come in contact with wild animals.
Canales stressed the importance of staying away from wildlife. “Leave Mother Nature alone,” he advised.
Dunbar concurred, and noted, “If wildlife seems friendly, that is abnormal behavior.”