Rabies exposures on the rise

Published 11:33 pm Friday, June 3, 2011

Rabies: Ernest Vasquez and his 2-year-old pit bull, Taz, return to the spot where Taz was attacked by a fox on Memorial Day. The fox tested positive for rabies, but Taz is expected to be fine because his rabies vaccinations were up to date.

Ernest Vasquez was taking his dog for a leisurely walk on Memorial Day morning when the rabid fox attacked.

Vasquez and his 2-year-old pit bull, Taz, were around the corner from their house on Park Road when Taz began growling and pulling on his harness, Vasquez said.

He looked in his neighbor’s yard and saw a fox coming for the pair.

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“He just jumped on my dog,” Vasquez said.

Taz, whom Vasquez adopted from the Portsmouth Humane Society while doing volunteer work there, emerged the victor in the fight. Vasquez said his dog picked the fox up and shook it in the air. Taz received only a scratch on his nose.

Because he had been vaccinated for rabies, Taz was safe. But some other dogs and people lately haven’t been so lucky, as rabid foxes and skunks even have attacked some humans.

So far this year, five wild animals in Suffolk have tested positive for rabies, and two other suspected rabid animals that have attacked humans haven’t been caught.

There were only three positive rabies tests in Suffolk all year last year, but Dr. Nancy Welch, acting director for the Western Tidewater Health District, does not think the occurrence of rabies in the wildlife population is increasing.

“We’re having increased opportunities of exposure,” she said. “I’m sure there’s no change whatsoever in the amount of rabid animals in the community. The only way we find out about it is when we have these exposures.”

Welch believes that increased development — particularly in the North Suffolk area, where many of the fox attacks have occurred — and other factors are causing increased contact between rabid wildlife and humans and domestic animals.

“Even as we grow as communities and we tear down their habitats to build, they have to go somewhere,” Welch said. “The idea is to live wisely and safely in this cohabitating we do.”

Welch said that people should take care to make their homes and yards unattractive to wild animals by not leaving out food or water, by putting barriers around vegetable gardens and by securing trash containers with lids.

People should also remember that cooking out, particularly cooking meat on a grill, will attract animals, Welch said.

“They can smell what’s in the grill,” Welch said. “When you cook on the grill, don’t pour that grease out on the yard. They can smell grease that’s been on the ground.”

Despite the best of precautions, though, rabid animals still will attack sometimes, Welch said.

She suggested that humans should always assume that bats, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums and stray cats and dogs have rabies unless proven otherwise.

If one of these animals is nearby, Welch suggested, humans should back slowly away and avoid making eye contact with the animal.

“You certainly don’t want to startle it because it may become defensive,” Welch said.

For more information on rabies, visit www.cdc.gov/rabies.