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How To Tell If A Raccoon Might Be Rabid

And what to do if you think it might be.

 

Earlier this month, a Madison homeowner who lives in the south end of town saw a raccoon that was acting weird. She called the Madison Police Department, they came and took care of it. 

 "Just want to say thanks to the Madison Police Department for quickly taking care of the raccoon sauntering across my neighbor's yard! Nice work, Madison PD!" she said in a post on the Madison Patch Facebook page. 

This prompted a question from another reader on Facebook: 

"The POLICE respond to this in Madison?"

"Please don't hesitate to call"

The woman who did the original post responded in the affirmative. 

"The police responded because the coon was surely rabid!"

Madison 911 confirmed that the Madison homeowner did the right thing by contacting the police. 

"A sick raccoon is a public health/safety concern and we will always send animal control or a police officer. Please don't hesitate to call."

Raccoons rank highest among animals reported for rabies

In 2011 and 2012, through the beginning of December, there were no official reports of rabid animals in Madison, according to the state Department of Public Health.

But in 2011 there were reports of three rabid animals in Clinton, the town next to Madison, including two raccoons and one skunk. In New Haven County, there were 36 reports of rabid animals, including seven bats, one cat, one coyote, 19 raccoons, and eight skunks. There were 194 reports of rabid animals in Connecticut for all of 2011, with raccoons ranking highest with 104 reports.

The total number of rabid animals reported has dropped significantly from 1992, when 838 rabid animals were reported, the state Department of Public Health says. But that drop is due not only to the number of raccoons in the state decreasing, due to rabies, but also due to a change in the testing criteria, the state says: 

The decline reflects an actual reduction of the raccoon population due to rabies and a change in animal testing criteria. In Connecticut, testing of wild animals for the rabies virus is limited to animals involved in exposure incidents with people or domestic animals. Therefore, the statistics presented on this page do not represent the total number of rabid animals in the wild. Rabies testing of animals is primarily performed to aid healthcare providers in the medical evaluation and treatment of people who may have been exposed. Testing is also done to guide animal control officers in the management of domestic animals that bite people or may have been exposed to the rabies virus through the bite of a wild animal. These statistics are useful to identify the species that most frequently test positive for rabies and the statewide distribution of rabid animals; they should not be used to evaluate risk of exposure.

What you can do to help control rabies

Here is information from the state Department of Health on what residents can do to help control rabies: 

  • Be a responsible pet owner, protect your pets; keep vaccinations up to date. Pets should not be allowed to roam. Report any domestic animals that are acting strangely to the local animal control officer.
  • Do not leave food of any kind outside your home, and secure garbage can lids to avoid attracting wild animals.
  • It is against the law to own wild animals as pets. If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to the local police or to the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. Do not go near it.
  • Bats and other wild animals should be kept out of dwellings by closing any small opening they can use to enter. Information about nuisance wildlife is available on the DEEP website.
  • If your pet is bitten or has had physical contact with a potentially rabid wild animal, wear gloves to examine or wash your pet. Contact your veterinarian and local animal control officer for further advice.

Symptoms of rabies in wildlife

The incubation period for rabies can be several weeks and is usually fatal once symptoms appear. Here is some information from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on rabies symptoms in wild animals: 

Different species show different signs of the disease. Expect variations even within the same species, because few animals show all of the signs of rabies. Some signs are subtle and easily missed. Unfortunately, you can't tell whether or not an animal is rabid just by its behavior. Other diseases, such as distemper or toxoplasmosis, can also cause similar symptoms. An animal that's been poisoned by lead, mercury, or antifreeze may also act "rabid." The only way to prove that an animal is rabid is to test its brain tissue in a laboratory. That's why it's smart to take precautions.

Here are the rabies symptoms you may see in wild animals:

  1. unprovoked aggression ("furious" rabies). Some animals may attack anything that moves, or even inanimate objects.
  2. unusual friendliness ("dumb" rabies).
  3. animal may stumble, fall, appear disoriented or uncoordinated, or wander aimlessly.
  4. paralysis, often beginning in the hind legs or throat. Paralysis of the throat muscles can cause the animal to bark, whine, drool, choke, or froth at the mouth.
  5. vocalizations ranging from chattering to shrill screams.
  6. nocturnal animals may become unusually active during the day (remember, some daytime activity is normal, especially when nocturnal animals are feeding their young).
  7. raccoons walk as if they're on very hot pavement.

Skunks, raccoons, foxes, and dogs usually display furious rabies. Bats often display dumb rabies, and may be found on the ground, unable to fly. This can be very risky for children, who are more likely to handle wild animals than adults. In domestic animals, rabies should be suspected if you see a sudden change in disposition, failure to eat or drink, or if the animal becomes paralyzed or runs into objects.

 

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