State officials: Rabies hitting Colorado wildlife

Although there are few rabies deaths in humans and their pets, they are on the rise among wildlife in Colorado, state health officials say.

Colorado broke its record for the number of wildlife rabies cases this year, and the state’s most recent case, a coyote near Cortez, was confirmed earlier this week.

To date, there have been 138 confirmed wildlife rabies cases in the state, said Elisabeth Lawaczeck, state veterinarian for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. There were 103 confirmed cases in 2009 and 65 the year before.

Lawaczeck said the deadly neurological disease seems to be spreading from the Eastern Plains toward the Front Range from skunks, though some have stemmed from bat bites on the Western Slope.

To track the problem, Lawaczeck’s office started a surveillance project with county health departments, animal control agencies, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State University. She said bats and skunks are the most likely animals to test positive for rabies, in part because they have a higher resistance to it.

“For some reason bats and skunks have been evolving with the rabies virus for thousands of years, so there’s something about their immune system so that they’ve adapted to each other,” she said.

“They have a longer incubation period, so they may be shedding the rabies virus longer. That allows it to spread.”

So far this year, the disease has been confirmed in 64 bats, 62 skunks and seven foxes. Additionally, a domestic cat, horse, muskrat, coyote and mule deer have tested positive for rabies. Two of those bats were in Mesa County.

Lawaczeck said 45 humans and 167 domestic animals this year were strongly suspected of being infected, but they were treated before any deaths occurred. She said the only way to know for sure a person or animal contracted the disease is through an autopsy.

The veterinarian said Coloradans can take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to them or their pets, including not feeding wild animals and making sure food for dogs or livestock is properly stored.

She suggested a person or pet scratched or bitten by an animal should seek medical help immediately, including animals that are up to date on their rabies shots.

“Rabies is deadly, but the vaccine is so effective in animals and humans that as long as it’s started soon enough, deaths are rare for humans or pets,” she said.


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