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In the Wild, Raccoons, Skunks, Foxes, Bats and Even Deer Can Be Rabid

By James and Terry Hyde, R.N., B.S.N.

These guys usually work the night shift, and while raccoons can be ornery critters, skunks can spoil your day with a little of the spray with which God armed them.

From time to time, you may encounter one during the day. If you do and it’s acting strangely (seems uncoordinated, is foaming at the mouth, seems very aggressive and shuns water) it could very well have rabies. In 99.999% of human cases, rabies is fatal. To our knowledge there’s been only one reported case of a man bitten by a rabid raccoon who, after symptoms manifested, managed not to succumb to the effects of this nasty virus. It is invariably deadly to the animal and all humans except for that one case. Immediate medical attention is required if you are bitten, even if the animal appears to be well, or even if you’re scratched by its claws. Rabies is even more prevalent in bats in some areas. I’ve had a bat swoop down and just graze the top of my head when I was hiking just after dusk. It didn’t bite me, but it did hit me, which was unusual inasmuch as that’s a fairly rare happenstance. But bats are significant vectors (carriers) of rabies. So as with raccoons and skunks, if you get bitten or scratched, seek medical attention right away.

If you live in the country, it’s a good idea, too, to keep an eye on the ceilings of your house and doorways, especially in the basement. Bats can get in, hang from a ceiling beam or door jam and go unnoticed. When nightfall comes, they’ve been known to fly around the house where people who, lying in their beds, have been bitten, and never knew about it, only to develop symptoms later. Once the symptoms appear, it’s already too late for rabies vaccinations.

We can remember the tortuous case of a 12-year-old girl in Connecticut who began to develop flu-like symptoms, a stiff neck and headaches. She was seen by a doctor, who not suspecting rabies, ran some test for meningitis, which were negative and sent her home with some simple antibiotics. As her symptoms worsened, she was seen again. Same diagnosis. A day later she was dead. It wasn’t until the autopsy that they discovered the cause. She had rabies, and sure enough, her parents found a bat flying around their rather large home.

The raccoon in this video is going through the final stage of a rabies infection, which causes it to loose its ability to stand and causes seizure-like movements. Generally speaking, raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats are nocturnal, so if you see one wandering (or flying) around during the day, stay well clear of it. They can become extremely aggressive, and if you get bitten, you will have to undergo a series of painful shots to destroy the virus before it reaches your brain.

If symptoms develop and the doctor is on the ball and recognizes them for what they are, you’re fortunate. He or she will begin immediate treatment and there’s a fairly strong likelihood you’ll survive. But, if you get the usual fallback diagnosis of flu or meningitis, check for any signs of puncture marks or scratches. If you find any, report them to the doctor immediately.

If you see a doctor before rabies’ symptoms begin to manifest and you get the necessary shots, you’ve got a near 100% chance of neutralizing the virus before it begins to affect you. If you can capture or kill the animal and take it to the hospital with you, it will help confirm whether or not rabies is present. Veterinarians perform a necropsy and study the animal’s brain. If rabies is present, you’ll need to undergo treatment, but you should be fine.

If you encounter a raccoon or skunk in the woods, just give it a wide berth. Rabid animals can be very aggressive. If you take a dog with you on your hike, make sure it’s received its rabies vaccinations. That will effectively protect it from getting the virus should it be attacked.

If it gets sprayed by a skunk, which is the customary outcome of a dog-skunk encounter, we’ve found that a bath in tomato juice (numerous cans worth) and vinegar, followed by a real dog bath with ferret shampoo can help rid the dog of the smell more quickly.

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