The serious outbreak of rabies in raccoons in the Washington area has a lot of people worried.
But "this calls for precautions, not panic," says Martha Armstrong, executive director of the Arlington Animal Welfare League.
Here are some precautions from the experts:
* Trapping and killing anything with four feet, as some seem to be advocating, is not the answer. "Even with the confirmed cases of rabies we have, the chances of a particular wild animal that crosses your path having rabies is quite small," says Guy Hodge, a naturalist with the Humane Society of the United States.
* Avoid any contact with wild animals. Especially avoid animals that act very aggressive or very friendly, that bite at any moving object or that seem sensitive to light. If you have an animal displaying these symptoms near your house, don't attempt to capture or kill it. You could get yourself or someone else bitten. If you see a normally nocturnal animal (like a raccoon, bat or skunk) out during daylight hours, call your local animal-control agency for further instructions. "If you should come upon an animal acting strangely," advises Hodge, "simply walk away from it." Rabid animals, even those in the aggressive stage of the disease, are unlikely to chase a person to attack.
* If you are bitten by an animal, wild or domestic, try to capture it so it can be tested. Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. This means it can be contracted when a victim is bitten and the bite breaks the skin, or if the saliva of an infected animal enters an existing wound.
* Be sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies. "Most of the people get the rabies shots because they've been bitten by a dog," says Dr. Alan Beck, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School and a consultant on rabies to the World Health Organization. "The normal chain of the disease is from raccoon to dog to human." Cats, too, need to be vaccinated, even if they stay indoors, because they may encounter rabid animals in attics, basements or between walls of a house. Most animal agencies in the affected areas are sponsoring special vaccination clinics. Call your local animal control agency or humane society for times and locations.
* Don't let your pets run loose.
* Don't feed or set out food for wild animals (except birds). Why invite trouble?
* Avoid contact with stray dogs and cats. Do not keep wild animals, especially skunks and raccoons, as pets.
* Don't set yourself up for wildlife visitors. Don't feed your pets outdoors. Be sure your garbage cans are as secure as possible. Arlington's Armstrong suggests repelling wild creatures by hanging a few mothballs from the handles of garbage cans or adding a rag dampened with ammonia every time you take out a new load. If you can, wait until pick-up morning to put your garbage out.
* Seal all holes and cracks in your house and other buildings that might provide shelters for unwanted guests. If your chimney is not capped, cap it with a wire screen. If it is, check to be sure little raccoon paws haven't worked the cap loose (a fairly common occurrence).
* Finally, don't panic. Rabies has been reported as far back as the 23rd century B.C. Experts agree that incidence of the disease runs in cycles, and this one will burn itself out eventually. In the meantime, let your common sense prevail.