Beavers and rabies: What's up with that?

All this time I’ve been terrified of bats; who knew we had to beware of beavers?

As I have written in this space before, I have an irrational fear of rabies. So it was troubling to read Wednesday about an 83-year-old woman from Falls Church, Va., being mauled by a rabid beaver Tuesday while she went for her customary evening swim in a private lake.

The victim, Lillian Peterson, suffered serious injuries requiring hospitalization and is undergoing the set of rabies shots that one gets after being exposed to the otherwise fatal virus.

Turns out she’s not alone: A 51-year-old New York man named Normand Brousseau was reportedly attacked and bitten by a rabid beaver while on a Boy Scout outing in early August.

According to the CDC, wild animals accounted for 92 percent of reported cases of rabies in 2010, the last full year for which data are available. More than a third of those cases (36.5 percent) involved raccoons; skunks came next (23.5 percent of cases), followed closely by bats (23.2 percent) and much less closely by foxes (7 percent). Only 1.8 percent of cases involved other wild animals such as rodents. Beavers are rodents – and, it’s interesting to note, herbivores.

Rabies is caused by a virus that’s transmitted via the saliva of infected animals. Once symptoms (including flu-like ones such as weakness or discomfort, fever or headache, which progress within a few days to anxiety, delirium and many other horrible conditions) appear, the disease is almost always fatal, according to the CDC. People who are aware they’ve been exposed receive an injection of human immune globulin plus rabies vaccine.

If you want to know everything there is to know about rabies – and who doesn’t? – check out the book “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus,” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, published by Viking in July. Coincidentally, its very first page mentions a rabid beaver attack at the Loch Raven Reservoir in Timonium, Md., which occurred in 2007.

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