Health Department Urges Caution Around Wild Animals
By Lynne Madison, R.S., Director of Environmental Health Division
HANCOCK: As Western Upper Peninsula residents are enjoying outdoor summertime activities, the Western UP District Health Department reminds people to use caution around wild and unfamiliar domestic animals to protect themselves against rabies.
Rabies is an infectious viral disease that affects the nervous system of humans and other mammals. People get rabies from the bite of an animal with rabies. Wild mammals, such as bats, raccoons, skunks, fox, or coyotes can have rabies and transmit it to people. Rabies is invariably fatal once symptoms appear.
“The best method of prevention is to use caution around unfamiliar animals,” Dr. Terry Frankovich, WUPDHD Medical Director. “If you are bitten by an animal, wash the wound immediately with plenty of soap and water and contact your physician and local health department. If you can do so safely, capture and confine the animal so it may be tested for the virus.”
Rabies exposure is nearly always through a bite, but rabies can also be transmitted if a rabid animal scratches a person or if its saliva comes into contact with broken skin. Because bites and scratches from bats may go unnoticed if a person is sleeping, is very young, or is mentally incapacitated, the health department should be contacted if a bat is found in the same room with a young child, or with a sleeping or mentally incapacitated adult.
Although rabies is rare, a few people die of rabies each year in the United States, usually because they do not recognize the risk of rabies from the bite of a wild animal and do not seek medical advice. According to the CDC, most of the recent human rabies cases in the United States have been caused by contact with infected bats. Laboratory testing by both the State of Michigan and State of Wisconsin has identified rabies positive bats in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan and in northern Wisconsin.
Reported wild animal bites and stray domestic pet bites are taken very seriously by the health department. If the animal or bat has been captured, it can be humanely euthanized by a veterinarian and tested for rabies by the Michigan Department of Community Health Laboratory. The laboratory must use tissue from the animal’s brain to test for rabies so it is important that animals which will be tested are euthanized in a manner that does not damage the animal’s head. Domestic pets such as dogs and cats that have bitten a person can be quarantined and observed for rabies symptoms if the owner wishes to keep the animal.
If the animal or bat can’t be captured and tested, the person who was bitten may need treatment for possible exposure to rabies. According to Dr. Frankovich, “A physician may give the bite victim a single injection of rabies immune globulin and then five injections over one month of rabies vaccine administered in the arm as a preventative measure”. If treatment is obtained promptly following rabies exposure, nearly all cases of rabies can be prevented. “All animal bites, regardless of whether the animal is available for rabies observation or testing, should be evaluated by a health professional for wound management, to check on the need for tetanus vaccination, and to make a decision regarding rabies preventive treatment.”
Because the treatment is so rigorous and expensive, preventing exposure in the first place is critical. To help avoid possible exposure to rabies:
- Avoid contact with wild animals and stray domestic pets, especially if you observe them acting abnormally or sick.
Exclude bats from living quarters by keeping screens in good repair and by closing up any small openings in windows, chimneys, and loose fitting doors that could allow them to enter.
Be sure pet dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock are up to date on their rabies vaccinations. Vaccinated pets prevent the spread of disease between wildlife and people.
Never leave infants or young children alone with any animal, and teach children to never approach an unfamiliar or wild animal.
Western U.P. District Health Department provides public health services to residents in Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga, Ontonagon, and Gogebic counties. In addition, its Superior Home Health and Hospice Division provides skilled home nursing and hospice services in the five counties. Western U.P District Health Department has offices in Hancock, L’Anse, Ontonagon and Bessemer.