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Unusual behaviors signal possible diseases in animals
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Authorities across Mississippi are reminding residents to vaccinate their pets and avoid all contact with wild animals as an investigation continues into the first confirmed case of rabies in a land animal since 1961.
The case was identified in Starkville last week in a feral, black and white kitten. While there is no ongoing health risk, people should notice warning signs and call their local animal control or sheriff’s office if they see a mammal that could be diseased.
Dr. Christine Bryan, assistant clinical professor at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said one of the key warning signs to look for is behavior that is the opposite of what an animal usually exhibits. Rabies is found mostly in bats but also in foxes, raccoons and skunks. Cats, dogs, horses and cattle are also at risk, though cases involving them are exceedingly rare.
“Unusual behavior is a strong indicator that something is wrong with an animal,” Bryan said. “Bats always fly at night. If you see one walking around during the day, that’s a concern. It’s also unusual for some land animals, like raccoons, to act friendly toward humans, or for cats and dogs to act unfriendly. This is another sign that there is a problem.”
The rabies virus is typically passed through bites and oral secretions from infected animals. Chances of exposure to rabies and other diseases increase when pets are abandoned and left to their own devices.
“Don’t let pets roam around. If they go outside, make sure you know where they are and that they stay on your property,” Bryan said. “If an animal that isn’t spayed, neutered or vaccinated is out in the environment, we don’t know if they’re going to be able fight off infection. That could lead to an increase in carriers for more diseases that can infect people.”
Attempting to trap a suspicious animal or handle a dead one increases the chances of exposure.
“Never approach an animal you think may be sick,” Bryan said. “Keep your distance and call animal control officials. They are trained to handle animals safely and keep other people from having to deal with them.”
Dr. Brigid Elchos, deputy state veterinarian with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, said pet owners are required by state law to get their pets vaccinated once they are 3 months old, a year after the first shot and every three years thereafter. She said this case illustrates the need for vaccinations and provides a good opportunity to remind people with cats or dogs to make sure their vaccinations are up to date.
“Nobody needs to panic over this,” Elchos said. “The city of Starkville and MSU are working with the Mississippi Department of Health and the Mississippi Board of Animal Health to make sure there is no ongoing risk. Domestic animals are a buffer between wildlife and humans, so if pets come in contact with wildlife, you want them to be protected from diseases for their sake and your family’s protection.”
If an animal suspected to have rabies is encountered, contact the Mississippi Department of Public health at 601-576-7725.
Contact: Dr. Christine Bryan, 662-325-1351; or Dr. Brigid Elchos, 601-359-1177