RABIES: A Spreading Scourge

Officials from Fish and Wildlife departments have been preaching for years that wild animal lovers shouldn't adopt orphaned animals, but until recently it's been the animals they were worried about. Now that a rabies outbreak is underway, we should all take their advice for our own good as well, and keep a safe distance from wild mammals. Pieter Straub, a wildlife technician with the USDA Animal Damage Control Program in Montpelier, reports that they have been assisting with rabies cases in Vermont since early in 1992. In that year, 24 animals were found with the disease. In 1993, there were 45 confirmed cases and, in just the first four months of 1994, the count had already reached 63.

Bad as it is for the occasional human, rabies can be a deadly scourge to many wildlife species. So far, foxes have been the hardest hit. One hundred and eight of the 132 confirmed cases since 1992 have been in red foxes.

The "fox strain" of rabies has approached Vermont from the north and there have been confirmed cases of the disease in all of the northern counties: Grand Isle, Franklin, Orleans, Essex, Chittenden, Lamoille, Caledonia and Washington. There was also a case of fox rabies in Rockingham, in Windham County. The "raccoon strain" is not yet in Vermont but is expected to spread north from Massachusetts or west from New Hampshire soon. By April, there were already 42 cases of this in southeastern New Hampshire.

Straub explained that "the 'fox strain' can infect any species, but it is spread mainly by foxes. Foxes can readily infect other species, but non-fox species do not frequently pass it to other animals." The "raccoon strain" works in much the same fashion, with raccoons as the vector.

Although all mammals can become infected, the disease is more common among some species than others. Only 2% of rabies cases in the country occur in rodents and these mostly involve larger members of the group, such as muskrat, beaver and woodchuck. It may be that the smaller rodents are fatally injured by the carnivores that bite them and do not survive long enough to contract or spread the virus.

A third strain, the "bat strain" has been monitored in Vermont since the 1950s and, unlike the other two strains, appears to be stable. It infected about 0.05% of all bats both 40 years ago and today. "The strain may have been around 'forever' at this low level," Straub said.

If you have questions about rabies, call the Vermont Rabies Hotline at 1-800-4-RABBES (1-800-472-2537).


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