PHOENIX – Arizona is on pace to break its record for animals testing positive for the rabies virus, prompting state officials to urge people to protect themselves and their pets.
The Arizona State Health Laboratory confirmed rabies in 162 animals this year, and those animals exposed 38 people and 119 pets to rabies, the state Department of Health Services said Friday.
The record was set in 2005, when the lab confirmed rabies in 169 animals.
Many of the cases of people and pets exposed to rabies occurred in the past few weeks, officials said.
A prized hunting coon from Pima County had to be euthanized last week after it was exposed to the virus and did not have prior vaccinations.
People are equally susceptible, and rabies has a 100 percent fatality rate for those who don’t seek immediate treatment.
Craig Levy, the Department of Health Services’ program manager for vector-borne diseases, said the rise has a lot to do with people being more diligent about turning over animals for testing and with neighborhoods being built closer to the wild.
“We do have more and more people encroaching into wildlife areas, which means more contact with wildlife,” Levy said.
But some rabid animals, such as bats, can fall into a yard regardless of the location, Levy said.
Because grounded bats look like mice, children often want to pick them up.
“Most people exposed in Arizona this year were playing with bats,” he said.
Recent incidents that led to Friday’s warning included a hiker attacked near Prescott by a rabid fox that also bit an animal control officer.
A striped skunk and a fox found near Flagstaff tested positive for the rabies virus, officials said.
Barbara Worgess, director of the Coconino County Health Department, said other cases this year have involved a bobcat and another skunk.
The latest cases were reported by people who noticed the animals hanging around neighborhoods, she said.
“Someone noticed (the skunk) was out during the day and acting weird, and the next day they found it dead,” she said.
Worgess said most animals in the area that are found to have rabies were exposed to a variant of the rabies virus carried by bats.
Owners can protect dogs and cats by making sure they receive rabies vaccines and booster shots.
Dogs should be kept on a leash in the wilderness to prevent contact with wild animals, officials noted.
Levy said children should be taught not to touch or play with an animal that looks sick or is acting abnormally.
The Arizona Department of Health Services offers these tips for protecting yourself and pets from exposure to rabies:
• Don’t let pets roam off the leash in the woods.
• If you find a bat on the ground, don’t pick it up; call animal control officers.
• Keep pet rabies vaccinations up to date.
• If exposed to an animal that shows symptoms of rabies, seek immediate medical attention.
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