As more people move into Loudoun County, more pets are running into rabid wildlife.
The total number of rabies cases reported each year has remained relatively steady in recent years, but domestic animals are coming into more frequent contact with wild animals infected with rabies, said Douglas Hubbard, of the Loudoun County Health Department. Of the 16 confirmed cases of rabies reported so far this year, 10 of the animals had contact with a domestic pet. All the pets had been vaccinated and did not contract rabies.
The 16 cases involved 11 raccoons, three red foxes, one skunk and one brown bat. Most of the reports are from areas west of Route 15.
To help minimize the spread of rabies, the Loudoun County Animal Shelter, at 39820 Charlestown Pike, between Hamilton and Waterford, will offer a rabies clinic for pets from noon to 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Local veterinarians will administer rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats for $4 each.
The clinic is sponsored by the Elizabeth Foster Fund for Animals and is held every other month. As many as 200 animals are vaccinated during each session, said Kim Miller, operations manager and chief animal warden for the Loudoun County Department of Animal Care and Control.
Hubbard said that along with the growing population in the county, the current drought conditions may increase the risk of contact as more wild animals wander into developed areas.
"The creeks are drying up, so the animals may be out looking for water," Hubbard said.
Rabies, a virus that destroys the nervous system, occurs mainly in wild mammals such as skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats. Those animals can then spread the infection to domestic animals, livestock and humans, typically through a bite. Once symptoms develop, the disease is 100 percent fatal.
Some common symptoms of rabies are: staggering, falling down, walking in circles, convulsions, disorientation, extreme aggression, lethargy and excessive or unusual vocalization.
"Foaming at the mouth is hardly ever seen," Miller said. "So that's not a good way to tell if an animal has rabies or not."
Symptoms vary, however, and can be similar to signs of distemper, another virus that causes vomiting, diarrhea, pneumonia and brain damage in dogs. Rabies can be spread to humans but distemper cannot.
Animal Control receives regular calls from residents who report seeing an emaciated fox and assume that it is rabid, Miller said. But rather than rabies, the fox is more likely infected with mange, a skin condition caused by a microscopic mite that leads to hair, weight and strength loss.
Before death, an animal with mange will appear thin, lethargic and very sick.
If a sick animal is spotted and is likely to come in contact with humans, residents are urged to call Animal Control at 703-777-0406. Animal wardens stress that they cannot handle calls about animals that are simply nuisances and pose no threat to public safety.
The most important precaution for people to take against rabies is to vaccinate all pets, keep them close to home and warn children never to handle wild animals or unknown domestic animals.