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Rabid Raccoon Removed from Potomac Residence

Officials advise caution in dealing with wild animals found in residential areas

A raccoon was removed from the backyard of a home on Stable Lane in the River Falls neighborhood of Potomac on Saturday, Nov. 11, with the suspicion that it had rabies. That suspicion was confirmed through testing by the Montgomery County Animal Services department and the animal has subsequently been euthanized.

“My dog was out back barking and I saw [the raccoon]", said Gary Gilbert, in whose backyard the raccoon was found. “So I brought my dog in and left for the afternoon because I figured it would go away.” By the time Gilbert returned home the raccoon had not left. “I went out and observed it and it just didn’t look right, it looked sick. I tried shooing it away with a big board and it just growled at me. I’m from the country originally and I know [raccoons] don’t do that.”

Gilbert notified Montgomery County Animal Services, who sent out two workers from the Montgomery County Humane Society and captured the raccoon with a long pole with a noose-like attachment at the end, according to Gilbert.

“I was impressed, I called them Saturday night and they came out here at 11 o’clock. They handled it very well, very professionally.”

RABIES IS A DISEASE that results from a virus that effects the brain and the central nervous system of infected animals, including humans, according to Leslie Sturges, Park Naturalist at the Locust Grove Nature Center in Cabin John Regional Park. It is carried through the saliva, which means that typically it is communicated directly through bites. In some instances, however, humans can contract it through handling infected animals and subsequently rubbing porous areas of their bodies, such as open wounds or their eyes, according to Suzanne Mullen of Montgomery County Animal Services.

The animals in which rabies are most commonly found are raccoons and bats, however, because of the way the disease is transmitted it is naturally endemic in mammals that have canine teeth — such as coyotes or foxes — according to Sturges.

Because rabies is carried in wild animals that are commonly found in this region, it is a disease that easily can be communicated to domestic animals such as dogs and cats. The symptoms of rabies include staggering, apparent disorientation, an inability to drink water, excessive salivation and hyper-aggressiveness, according to Sturges. However, once these symptoms are displayed, it is too late to treat the virus and the condition is fatal. The amount of time that it takes for the virus to reach that point of no return is highly variable, according to Sturges.

“The biggest issue is the question of any human or animal contact. That’s why it’s so important to keep your dogs up to date on their rabies shots,” said Mullen. Pets that have come into contact with rabid wildlife must subsequently be quarantined to varying degrees. A pet that has not been vaccinated prior to suspected contact must undergo a six-month isolated quarantine in a locked cage and in a locked room, according to Mullen, while it receives a lengthy series of injections. Pets that are up to date on their vaccinations at the time of suspected contact receive booster shots and must be kept on an owner’s property for 45 days.

Because there is no way to positively test for rabies without sampling brain tissue, any such test requires that the animal be euthanized, according to Mullen. Such was the case with the raccoon found in Gilbert’s yard, which was detained by the Humane Society and euthanized. Its head was then removed and sent to a lab in Baltimore for testing which confirmed the suspicion that the animal was infected.

THOUGH THE EVENT was unsettling for Gilbert, it is not indicative of any increase in rabies in the local population of wild animals, according to Mullen. “We normally get between 50 and 60 of these cases per year,” said Mullen. “We’re within that range for this year.”

Healthy raccoons are attracted to residential homes that have pet food or bird food in the yards, according to Mullen, and this attraction is the same for those infected with rabies.

"They are very omnivorous animals," said Sturges, explaining their strong attraction to trash cans in residential areas. "Raccoons love the suburbs because there are so many easy ways for them to get food." Consequently, suburban areas are prone to unnaturally abundant raccoon populations, and Potomac is no different. "If people want to help maintain the population of raccoons they should keep their trash lids closed and clean up the bird seed under their bird feeders. There are actually a lot of people who think that raccoons are cute animals and actually try to feed them on their decks in their backyards," said Sturges, advising strongly against doing so.

"The most telltale sign of an animal with rabies is excessive salivation," said Sturges, "but if you're close enough to tell if an animal is salivating excessively, you're probably too darn close."

“It’s a fatal disease, so we don’t play around,” said Mullen. “If we have to kill an animal to test for rabies to make sure we keep people safe, then that’s the price that has to be

paid.”