One of the worst parts of Haley Zachary’s job is to inform someone their pet came into contact with a rabid animal. More often than she would prefer, the safest course of action is to euthanize.
“Rabies is not a good way to die,” Zachary said. “And preventing that suffering in that animal is going to be the most humane way to deal with it.”
Unfortunately, Zachary, a communicable disease epidemiologist with the El Paso County Public Health Department, said she has seen about six times the amount of infected animals this year than a typical year might yield.
The neurological disease carries a nearly 100 percent fatality rate with animals and humans, Zachary said. Typically, up to six people a year die of rabies nationwide. In November, one person in Utah died of the disease, she said.
A total of 66 positive animals were found this year in the county, Zachary said. Fifty-nine were skunks, and the rest were bats and raccoons.
“It’s definitely unprecedented,” she said. “We started to see the increase last year when we had 28 positive animals. The numbers vary every year, but starting a few years ago was the first time we started seeing skunk rabies in the population.”
Between 2016 and 2010, Zachary said, the county would see an average of 10 rabid animals each year. Her office only investigates cases where potentially rabid animals come into contact with humans or their pets, she said. They do not have enough resources to comb through all the area’s wildlife.
The spread of rabies, especially in skunks, isn’t limited to El Paso County.
Jennifer House, the state public health veterinarian for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said Denver, Larimer and Jefferson counties have seen increases as well.
In addition, Durango, Pagosa Springs and Bayfield have seen rabid skunks, which is atypical, House said.
“This variant was identified in the 1960s in Texas, and it has been making its way north and west,” House said. “It’s unfortunate that this has happened, but it has moved.”
This year, Denver saw a total of 71 positive skunks and five bats, House said.
“Denver has not had skunk-variant rabies until fall 2017, so a typical year for them would have been zero,” House said.
Unseasonably warm weather last winter likely contributed to the rise in skunks contracting the disease, Zachary said. Rather than sticking near their den during the colder months, the small mammals are more social and thus more likely to spread the disease.
In addition, House said the spread to urban environments like Denver and Colorado Springs exacerbates the uptick because local animals don’t know to avoid the infected.
“Whenever it enters into a new area, you have a bunch of naive animals who are very susceptible to rabies,” she said.
It remains unclear whether the number of rabies cases next year will increase or decrease, House said.
And while humans do contract the disease every year, House said, no Coloradan has been infected since 1931.
Pets, however, are a different story.
“Rabies is scary because it’s not treatable, but it is preventable,” she said.
The best options are to have veterinarians vaccinate dogs and cats, House said. Then keep cats inside and dogs on leashes.
“Don’t feed skunks, and don’t leave cat and dog food in your yard,” she added. “You don’t want to set up an established habitat for the animals in your yard.”
Rabies is transmitted through the bite, saliva or cerebral or spinal fluid of infected animals, Zachary said.
“You have to get bit or licked or kissed by a skunk or a bat, and those things don’t commonly happen,” she said.
Most think of rabid animals foaming at the mouth, Zachary said. While that can be a symptom, it occurs late in the disease’s progression. Earlier on, the animals appear as though they’re drunk, she said.
“They can’t walk straight or they’ll walk in circles, bang their head on the ground,” she said. “They’ll have strange vocalizations or the animal will look like its seeing things that aren’t really there. They won’t eat, won’t drink and they won’t be shy.”
Skunks are typically docile and shy creatures, House said. So skunks approaching or attacking people or animals are likely sick.
Anyone who believes they or their pets have come into contact with a rabid animal should call the county at 719-578-3220.