An uptick in the number of rabies cases has the Maricopa County Department of Public Health has urging residents to be cautious around wild animals that might be carrying the virus and to make sure dogs and cats have up-to-date rabies vaccinations. Three three bats tested positive for rabies in recent weeks, and so far this year there have been seven cases of animal rabies in the county.
“We do not have a good explanation of why we are seeing more rabid animals than usual this year,” said Craig Levy, epizoologist for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “The best thing for residents to do is to make sure their animals are vaccinated against rabies and to be sure not to handle animals such as bats that could be carrying the virus.”
The cases this year include five rabid bats, one bobcat and one fox.
Four people have had to receive preventative rabies shots, the county said in a statement today. In 2016, Maricopa County had five cases of lab confirmed rabies cases in animals, including four bats and one coyote.
“Our concern is that the worst months may still be ahead.” Levy said.
During the late summer and fall, the number of bat related exposures to people and pets tends to increase due to bat migration patterns. At this time, bats are migrating south and will sometimes stop and roost in places where people or pets may find them.
If you see a potentially rabid animal, leave it alone, officials warn. Rabid animals may show unusual behavior or appear unstable. Rabid carnivores, such as skunks, foxes, bobcats and coyotes may become aggressive and may attempt to bite people, pets and livestock. Wild animals exhibiting unusual behavior should be reported to Arizona Game and Fish. Examples of unusual behavior include: wild animals that show no fear of people and pets; nocturnal animals that are active in daylight; and bats found on the ground, in swimming pools or that have been caught by a pet.
“We have had too many incidents over the years where individuals have handled live or dead bats thinking it is safe to do so,” Levy said. “Many of these people had to receive rabies shots. If your pet has had contact with a bat, be sure to contact your local animal control office which could be located in your city’s jurisdiction or Maricopa County.”
Rabies is caused by a virus that infects the central nervous system, including the spinal cord and brain. Rabies is nearly always fatal once symptoms appear. Anyone who has had direct contact with a bat or other wild animals (especially foxes, skunks, and bobcats) should seek medical attention right away.
In Arizona, rabies most commonly occurs in bats, skunks and foxes, but any mammal can contract the disease. Arizona is home to 28 species of bats, more than almost any other state, according to the state’s Game & Fish department.
Bats are key mammals in the food chain, of course. A bat can eat up to 1,000 bugs an hour, including mosquitoes, Game & Fish says.
What You can Do
The county recommends these precautions:
- Keep people and pets away from wild animals. Do not pick up, touch, or feed wild or unfamiliar animals, especially sick or wounded ones. If someone has been bitten or scratched, or has had contact with the animal, report it immediately to animal control or health officials.
- Do not “rescue” seemingly abandoned young wild animals. Usually, the mother will return. If the mother is dead or has not returned in many hours, call the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
- Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated regularly.
- Vaccinate all dogs and cats against rabies. Pets should be kept on a leash or in a fenced yard.
- Take precautions when camping, hunting or fishing. Avoid sleeping on the open ground without the protection of a closed tent or camper. Keep pets on a leash and do not allow them to wander.
- Do not disturb roosting bats. They will usually leave after nightfall.
- If you find a bat on the ground, don’t touch it. Report the bat and its location to your local animal control officer or health department. If a person or pet has come into contact with the bat, it will need to be tested for rabies. Place a box over the bat to contain it. Be careful not to damage the bat in any way since it must be intact for rabies testing.
More information about rabies in Maricopa County is at www.MCRabies.org.