Statewide: 56 cases of rabies so far in 2016, up from 33 in 2015, 43 in 2014

Raccoon killed by dog in Lincolnville tests positive for rabies

Fri, 10/14/2016 - 2:30pm

    LINCOLNVILLE — It can happen before you know it, and without realizing you've let your dogs outside to do their business in the yard at the absolute worst time. For our family, the witching hour was 6:30, maybe 7 p.m. If we are lucky, regular rabies vaccinations will continue to keep our two dogs safe, and on the night of Oct. 4, we learned how valuable keeping them up to date is.

    On Aug. 22, our dogs tangled with a small skunk in our fenced yard in Lincolnville on Greenacre Road. On the night of Oct. 4, it was a large male raccoon. The skunk ran off, and though we tried for a week to catch it in a trap to have it tested, we never saw it again. The raccoon wasn't so lucky. Our larger dog battled with it, and left it mortally injured, and a neighbor came over and put it down.

    But the raccoon's bad luck, was our good fortune, if one can consider having your dog kill a rabid animal "good luck."

    Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system of an infected animal. Unlike other viruses, there are no carriers of rabies. All infected animals are sick animals. Any mammal can contract rabies, in its various strains, but fox, raccoon, skunk and woodchuck are deemed the most susceptible to the raccoon strain. While the majority of animals testing positive for rabies in Maine are raccoon, rabies has also been found among bat, bobcat, fox, skunk, woodchuck, wolf hybrid, cat and livestock, including cow, horse and sheep, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The most likely mode of rabies transmission is by introduction of saliva containing rabies virus into a bite wound. It can also occur if saliva or central nervous system tissue from a rabid animal contacts a fresh wound (less than 24 hours old) or mucous membrane, for example the lining of the eyes, nose, mouth or genitalia, according to the CDC.

    According to Heidi Anderson Blood, of Searsmont, who serves as the animal control officer for Lincolnville, Swanville, Liberty and Hope, our decision to request a test of the raccoon killed by our dog was a good one.

    Despite it ending up dead that night in our yard, the raccoon looked healthy. It had a nice solid coat of fur, its eyes looked clear, it was big and fat.

    "The biggest thing that's important to remember is this raccoon was positive and it looked healthy," said Blood. "Most people think of a rabies-infected animal as being manged and aggressive, and that is rarely the case. They are often decent looking and acting somewhat normal."

    Unlike distemper and mange, rabies often kills the infected wild animal before it begins to look or act sick. According to the CDC, the spread of the rabies virus in the central nervous system is relatively rapid. The average incubation period for cats, dogs and horses is 3-8 weeks, for ferrets is 3-10 weeks, for cattle is 2-12 weeks and for humans is 3-8 weeks. Although the CDC also notes that for cats and dogs the incubation period can be 2 weeks to 6 months, and for humans it can be 9 days to 7 years.

    The incubation period for rabies in wild in animals is unknown and extremely variable, and they can acquire it not only through bites from an infected animal, but transplacentally (before birth), transmammary (through mother's milk) and/or from eating a dead rabid animal.

    The Waldo County Humane Society will hold the following rabies clinics through the end of the year. These clinics are free to Waldo County residents; $7 for residents outside of  Waldo County:

    • Saturday, Oct. 22 - Brooks Fire Station, 19 Purple Heart Highway (Route 139), from 9 to 11 a.m., Dr. Sarah Tomalty of Little River Veterinary Hospital will administer the shots.

    • Saturday, Nov. 5 - Liberty Community Center, from 9 to 11 a.m., Dr. Jocelyn Burke of Little River Veterinary Hospital will administer the shots.

    • Saturday, Dec. 10 - Lincolnville Fire Station, Camden Road, Lincolnville Center, from 9 to 11 a.m., Dr. Sarah Caputo of Belfast Veterinary Hospital will administer the shots.

    The CDC, in its Rabies Management Guidelines report said, "Once a wild animal gets rabies, it may incubate the disease for a long time without showing signs and may even shed the virus without ever becoming ill. Because of this, wild animals cannot be considered to be free of rabies even if purchased from a pet shop, acquired as a baby or held for a long period of time."

    I did not see the raccoon in our yard on Oct. 4, before our dogs did. I don't know if it was trying to make friends with our dogs, or if it was acting aggressive to them before things got really noisy and caught my attention.

    "Please don't let it be a skunk again, please don't let it be a skunk again," I said in my head, running out of the house, across the yard and making my way into the dark edge of the woods where they were, all the while yelling the dog's names and telling them, foolishly, to "Leave it!"

    Following our dogs' exposure with the raccoon, and because we had the animal and it could be tested, Blood had us place it into two plastic garbage bags, put it on ice in a cooler and she picked it up the following morning.

    Blood said, "Even though you may not have an obvious cut on your hands, it is highly recommended that you handle any wild suspected rabid animal with great caution.."

    That means gloves, and leak-proof containers. Also, she said, do no freeze the animal, refrigerate it.

    "Also, if the animal must be shot, do not shoot it in the head, as intact brain matter is the only viable means of testing," said Blood.

    Blood took our raccoon on the morning of Oct. 5 to the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab in Augusta, which would determine if it was positive for rabies.

    "If I can get it to the Laboratory by 11 a.m., we usually get results back by the end of the day," said Blood.

    Following our dogs' encounter with the skunk at the end of August, during which our small dog, Nina, sustained bite wounds to her face, both she and our other dog, Shnuck, received rabies boosters and were put under quarantine for the required 45 days. This time, we waited to see what the test results on the raccoon were before taking them in for another booster.

    I waited all day Oct. 5, and decided it was probably negative since nobody had contacted me by 4 p.m., when I thought state offices were closed. But then I turned on my computer after arriving home from work and saw I had a message from Blood on Facebook.

    "POSITIVE" was the text message Blood sent to me at 5:36 p.m. on Oct. 5. I was given a phone number at the CDC to call as they had a slew of questions for me and needed to file a report. I ended up talking to an on-call epidemiologist, who also provided me with much-needed information.

    I learned that rabies is transmitted to humans only by directly introducing the virus into open cuts or wounds in the skin, or by introducing the virus onto mucous membranes.

    That means that picking up a dead raccoon by the tail is considered "secondary" exposure, and not cause for a Post-Exposure Prophylaxis series of shots. Picking up a small dog that may have been exposed to the saliva of the dead raccoon is also considered "secondary" exposure, given that the handler, me, had no open wounds or scratches on my hands or arms when I did it.

    Phew, no shots for us humans.

    But the dogs needed to go in for another booster, since it had been more than 27 days since their last rabies booster. And another, more stringent 45-day quarantine and observation period would begin, with a careful monitoring — especially in the first two weeks — for symptoms such as changes in behavior, lethargy, inability to pick up food, excessive drooling, a change in the sound of their bark or any unsteadiness or paralysis.

    The 45-day observation period is necessary because, according to our veterinarian at Pen Bay Vets, "no vaccine is 100 percent effective and it is therefore possible for a vaccinated animal to contract rabies." And when I took Nina and Shuck in for their boosters, we minimized the number of people they interacted with to just me and Dr. Kate Pierce, so that if they did come down rabies, there were fewer humans in the exposure group.

    When a dog, cat or ferret without current rabies immunization is known or suspected to be exposed to rabid or suspect rabid animal, it should be immediately euthanized, according to the CDC's Guidelines. In the state of Maine, the only accepted confirmation of rabies in an animal is by testing fresh brain tissue.

    "If the owner is unwilling to have the animal euthanized, it should be placed in strict isolation for six months. Isolation in this context refers to confinement in an enclosure that precludes direct contact with people and other animals," said the Guidelines. "This situation is of the greatest concern to public health officials because of the much greater possibility that a domestic animal will develop rabies if it is unimmunized. Although one would expect onset of illness within 45 days, there have been documented cases where this has occurred in unimmunized pets 5-6 months after exposure. Accordingly, this period of strict isolation is set at six months."

    Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 3, there have been a total of 58 positive rabies tests in animals statewide. That's up from a total of 33 positive tests in 2015 and 43 in 2014.

    In Knox County this year, a skunk tested positive in Union on July 11; and in Waldo County, two raccoons tested positive in Lincolnville, one on June 16 and the other Oct. 5.

    In 2016, the state has recorded the most rabies-positive animals in Kennenbec County, including 4 raccoons in Augusta; 1 raccoon in Benton; 1 raccoon and 1 skunk in Gardiner; 1 cat in Litchfield, 1 grey fox and 1 skunk in Monmouth; 1 raccoon in Waterville; 1 skunk in West Gardiner and 1 raccoon in Winthrop.

    Lincoln County has had four positive tests for rabies, including 1 skunk in Jefferson (Sept. 27), 1 skunk in Waldoboro (Feb. 1), and 1 cow and 1 skunk in Whitefield (Aug. 31 and Aug. 8 respectively).

    Positive tests for rabies have been found in the animal species listed above, as well as bats and big brown bats, a cow and a woodchuck.

    Looking back at date in 2015 and 2014, there were no reported rabies-positive tests in Waldo County, but there was 1 skunk in Knox County (St. George) on Dec. 21 and 1 skunk in Lincoln County (Wiscasset) on Oct. 5. In 2014, Knox County had 1 rabies-positive skunk in Washington (Aug. 14) and Waldo County had 1 rabies-positive bat in Freedom on Sept. 2 and 1 rabies-positive raccoon in Lincolnville on Jan. 13. There were no reports of rabies-positive animals in Lincoln County in 2014, according to the data.

    See the complete data here.

    According to a source at the state Testing Lab, it is not known why there is a cyclical nature in rabies positives. Why one year there are more, and then another less.

    Their educated guess, which can be backed up by a 2012 Maine CDC Press Release, is that when there are a lot of rabid animals around, they will infect more as they move around. As they die off, there is less exposure, and so fewer cases. Also, the numbers have to do with how hard the winters are.

    Dr. Don Hoenig, who was State Veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture in 2012, and Stephen Sears, State Epidemiologist in 2012, issued a press release about rabies after 11 positive cases were reported by January that year.

    "The uncharacteristically warm winter weather that we've been experiencing and the lack of significant snowfall may be contributing to the increase by enabling wild animals to roam more freely," said Hoenig in the 2012 release.

    With so many cases of rabies in Maine in 2016, keeping pets (and livestock) vaccinated is one of the best things you can do to keep them healthy. As for keeping pets, and people, safe from exposure to rabies, the CDC recommends the following steps:

    • Avoid sick or strange acting animals and report them to the local animal control officer (or police department).
    • Do not pick up, touch or feed wild animals or unfamiliar animals. Do not leave pet food outside for any reason. Feeding wildlife not only increases the risk of rabies exposure but also is not healthy for the animals themselves. It permits animal populations to increase beyond normal limits and can lead to obesity, dental disease and unnatural social behavior.
    • Do not 'rescue' seemingly abandoned baby wild animals. In most cases when a baby animal is found, the parent is nearby waiting for humans to leave. Attempting to raise young wild animals is very rarely successful and even if it is, the result is a wild animal which does not know how to live in the wild.
    • Do not keep wild or exotic animals as pets. Maine State law requires a permit for wildlife rehabilitators and others having wild animals in their possession.
    • Use only animal proof trash cans. Garbage attracts wildlife.
    • Cap chimneys and seal openings and cut tree branches that provide access to houses, garages, etc., to prevent raccoons and bats from entering. Raccoons especially have adapted very well to living closely with humans. Although not normally seen due to their nocturnal habits, their numbers are often higher in suburban and urban areas than in more rural locations due to the presence of food and nesting sites.
    • If bitten or scratched by any animal, one should immediately gently irrigate the wound with water or a dilute water povidone-iodine solution and contact a health care provider to assess potential rabies exposures.
    • If a pet is bitten or scratched by another animal, gloves should be worn when handling or cleaning the wound. Afterwards, wash hands thoroughly. Contact a veterinarian to determine if the pet requires treatment, including a rabies booster.
    • Teach children to keep a safe distance from wildlife and strays.

    There are other tips and information available from the CDC about rabies and rabies prevention, and it can be accessed here in the Maine Rabies Management Guidelines.

    Reach Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards at and 207-706-6655.