An "unprecedented" spike in rabid skunks is gripping El Paso County and the state - even in traditionally uncommon areas like Colorado Springs' Old North End, Palmer Park and Widefield.
So far this year, 23 skunks have tested positive for rabies across the county - more than any other year on record, said Robyn Weber, an El Paso County Public Health epidemiologist.
It mirrors a similar trend along Colorado's Front Range, which has nearly matched the 93 skunks confirmed rabid in all of 2017, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data show.
Myriad factors - a warmer-than-average winter, rising skunk populations and the fatal virus' continued spread across Colorado - appear to be playing a role, state and county health officials say.
As a result, those health officials are urging residents to vaccinate their pets and immediately report any close encounters.
"Stay away from animals you don't know," said Dr. Jennifer House, the state health department's public health veterinarian. "That would include both wild and domestic animals ... and then make sure that pets are up to date on rabies vaccination."
The virus, which is fatal once symptoms appear, primarily spreads from animal bites, or when infected saliva gets into open wounds or the eyes, nose or mouth, the health department said.
Rabid skunks may be aggressive or stagger while walking. They also might be unusually docile - meaning they may be less likely to flee when approached.
Rabies wasn't present in Colorado's skunk population prior to 2007, House said.
An outbreak from 2009 through 2011 decimated El Paso County's population, she said. But with skunk numbers once again on the rise, so are cases of the disease.
The epidemic began along the county's eastern plains, and it has since spread west. So far this year, skunks have tested positive around Peyton, Falcon, Widefield and within Colorado Springs' city limits, including near downtown.
The only rabid skunk confirmed west of Interstate 25 was found in Palmer Lake.
"It's kind of a cyclic thing that occurs; we happen to be in an up-cycle," Weber said. "One of the big concerns is that we have a lot of people and a lot of pets in these areas where we're testing positive."
The hardest hit community in the state is Denver, which has had 45 skunks confirmed rabid this year. The first rabies-infected skunk wasn't found there until 2017 - leaving a larger-than-average population for the virus to inflict, House said.
The disease's spread comes ahead of the state's typical rabies season, which runs from April through October. That's when bats from Central America migrate to the state, raising the risk of exposure from those animals.
Anyone who comes into contact with a bat or a skunk, or whose pet is exposed, should immediately contact El Paso County Public Health at 578-3220, Weber said. That includes anyone who finds a bat in their house, because bat bites often go unnoticed due to the small size of their teeth.
Timing is key, because anyone exposed must undergo treatment to keep the virus from taking hold.
Anyone who spots a bat or skunk that appears rabid also should immediately call public health officials.
Weber suggested that anyone who finds a skunk on their property should call a pest control company to have it removed.
And anyone who finds a dead skunk - when it does not appear to have come into contact with a pet or a human - should double-bag it and dispose of it, while using gloves, Weber said.
Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654