Rabies outbreak slows in Southern Arizona

Veterinarian Roberto Rojas, left, gives a Rabies vaccination to Bandit, the dog, as Gloria Marinez, right, holds Bandit in her arms at Santa Cruz Humane Society in Nogales, Ariz. on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.  Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez.
Veterinarian Roberto Rojas, left, gives a Rabies vaccination to Bandit, the dog, as Gloria Marinez, right, holds Bandit  at Santa Cruz Humane Society in Nogales, Ariz. on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez.

After nearly one year of being confined to 6-foot leashes and fenced-in yards, dogs in southern Arizona may soon be able to run free without fear for rabies.

A surprise outbreak led Santa Cruz County to issue a rabies quarantine in April 2014 to prevent dogs and other pets from interacting with rabid skunks, the main carriers of the disease in that area.

The quarantine has been extended through April this year, but the number of rabid skunks appears to be in decline, said Lt. Jose L. Peña Jr., supervisor at the Santa Cruz County Animal Care and Control in Nogales, Arizona.

“Since February, it’s slowed down tremendously,” he said.

The quarantine is not likely to continue beyond that, he said. Under the quarantine, dog owners must keep their pets vaccinated, leashed and in fenced yards or buildings to avoid contact with skunks and other wild animals. Residents must also avoid feeding wild animals or keeping pet food outside of their houses, and they should report any wild animal acting strange or approaching people or pets.

From 2013 to 2014, the number of wild animals in Arizona that were captured and tested positive for rabies jumped from 70 to 153, the highest number recorded since the last outbreak in 2009, in which 280 wild animals tested positive throughout the state. 

Seventy-two of the cases last year occurred in Pima County and 51 were found in Santa Cruz County.

Pima County has not issued a quarantine, but all dogs in Arizona must be vaccinated according to state law.

“Every 10 years, we’ll get an outbreak like this,” Peña said. “This time around, it was only five years. We weren’t expecting this outbreak so soon. It was very close to the record-breaking year that we had in 2009.”

This year, eight rabid skunks were found in Santa Cruz County in January. In February, there were two. By mid-March, only one had been found.

In contrast, in 2014, the county confirmed seven rabid skunks in January and 10 in February.

“It looks like it’s dying down, which is good,” Peña said.

The recent outbreak seems to be localized, said Michael Fink, epidemiologist for the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Office of Infectious Disease Services, which monitors rabies cases throughout the state.

No cases have been found in nearby Cochise County, which is good news, he said.

During an outbreak, health officials are on the front line for slowing the disease and stopping it from spreading to other wild animals, pets, livestock and people. Public participation is one of the main tools for slowing the spread of the disease.

A natural cycle

Rabies typically affects wild skunk, bat and fox populations in Arizona, and natural outbreaks occur every several years, Fink said.

The virus spreads through saliva and can be transferred to other animals and people from animal bites, he said. It travels through the central nervous system and causes brain inflammation and death. No cure is known.

“Basically, the animal is out of its mind,” Fink said.

Skunks are the main carriers of the virus during the current outbreak. Skunks carry a strain of the virus specific to their species, so outbreaks are part of a normal cycle, Fink said.

“These skunks are spreading the virus to themselves,” he said.

The disease spreads when the population of skunks is large and healthy. As some skunks die from rabies, the spread of the virus slows, and fewer skunks become infected. When the population grows again, the disease spreads again.

In 2014, 46 rabid skunks were found in Santa Cruz County, up from nine in 2013.

“One of the things that the (skunks) are doing is that they’re using the Santa Cruz River valley for going back and forth, plus tributaries such as Sonoita Creek,” Fink said. The river stretches from Nogales through Tucson and nearly reaches Phoenix.

In Pima County, the main culprit is bats, which also carry a natural strain of the virus, he said.

Last year, 62 bats were found with the virus in Tucson. In 2013, 28 were found. Only two bats were found by mid-February this year.

“Tucson by the end of the year will have 50 to 60 (rabid) bats just because they’re on the migratory pattern for the bats,” Fink said.

35 Dogs Exposed

The quarantine helps prevent the spread of the fatal disease to pets, livestock and people. Many dog owners have followed the rules, but some have not, Peña said.

Gloria Martinez of Rio Rico saw two small dogs running loose in her neighborhood, including one without tags, she said at the Santa Cruz Humane Society vaccination clinic in Nogales, where two of her dogs were receiving rabies booster shots. Martinez and her husband Joe own five dogs and keep them in their yard or on leashes, she said.

Joe had not heard about the quarantine, but he did see an informational flier at the post office warning about skunks.

Alan Delman, also of Rio Rico, had not heard about the recent rabies outbreak, but he normally keeps his dogs vaccinated, on a leash and in his backyard.

“We do have an electric fence because we have lots of coyotes that serenade us at night,” he said.

People in his neighborhood seem to keep their dogs under control, he said.

Dog owners can be fined up to $300 if their dogs are caught roaming without a leash during the quarantine.

Vaccinated dogs that are bitten by a rabid wild animal must stay at home for 45 days, but unvaccinated dogs that are bitten are held at the Santa Cruz County Animal Care and Control facility for six months.

“That comes to be very expensive if somebody wants to do that,” Peña said.

The other option is for the dog to be euthanized, he said. Since January 2014, 35 dogs in the county have been exposed to rabid animals, and six of the dogs have been euthanized because they had not been vaccinated.

“We still have people who are not vaccinating their animals,” he said.

Last year, the county offered three vaccination clinics at which rabies vaccines cost $7, he said.     The Santa Cruz Humane Society clinic draws dog owners from around the county. The clinic offers a rabies vaccine for $18, said Irma Alvarez, a clerk at the organization.

Testing animals

Each year, the state receives thousands of calls about wild or domestic animals acting strange.

Animal control officers capture and test every wild animal that comes into contact with people or domestic pets and has been reported. The officers also test wild animals that are called in after acting abnormal, Fink said.

An animal must be dead to be tested for rabies, said Glenda Aguirre, epidemiologist for Pima County Health Department.

“If the animal isn’t already dead, it’s humanely euthanized by the animal control specialist and, as gruesome as it sounds, they chop of its head and send it to the state lab or the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) lab,” she said.

There, the lab tests the cerebellum, the lower back part of the brain above the spinal cord.

“No matter what, that animal ends up dying,” Aguirre said.

Until 2011, the state honored every request to test pet cats and dogs that were reported, however, Fink and his colleagues realized some of those tests were unnecessary.

“We would be typing in (data for) hundreds of dogs and cats that were negative, and there just wasn’t any reason to test them,” he said.

For example, he decided not to test a cat that bit its owner while being bathed. “There was just a lot of reason not to do it,” since that was a predictable behavior, he said.

If a dog or cat is acting in a way consistent with rabies, the state does take those requests seriously.

“If pets get exposed, that’s also another risk for humans to potentially get exposed or for them to lose their pets to rabies,” Aguirre said.

Keeping pets and people safe

The most important action people can take is to keep their pets and livestock vaccinated, Fink said.

“Regardless of whether there is an (outbreak) in your area or not, always keep your dogs and cats current on their vaccines, and again, while the law does not require cats to be vaccinated, they should be,” he said.

In Arizona, dogs should be vaccinated starting at three months old, said Tiffany Cerrios, veterinary technician at the Margaret McAllister Brock Veterinary Clinic in Phoenix. A booster is required one year after the first shot, then every three years.

Residents can also report wild animals that are acting strange, especially skunks, bats or foxes. A wild animal that is rabid might attack a person or pet, but it can also act groggy, said Neil Konst, supervisor of enforcement for the Pima Animal Care Center.

“You never know what the behavior will be,” Konst said. “ … You’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

A rabid animal might also sway when it walks, “what we would call a ‘drunk stagger,’” Aguirre said. Or, if a nocturnal animal such as a skunk or bat is rabid, it might be found during the day instead of at night.

Wildlife does not usually go near humans, so if it does, that is considered unusual behavior too, she said.

“I’ve been through several rabies outbreaks, but this one, for some reason, we’ve had encounters where these skunks were actually coming after us,” Peña said. “Fortunately, they’re small critters that we’re able to keep away from us without being bitten.”

“You just don’t know until it’s tested,” Konst said.

The county is working with the Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services office in Phoenix, Fink said.

“The reason they reacted immediately (in Santa Cruz County) is because they know the history,” he said.

“They knew they were able to react immediately and heighten their surveillance and be on the lookout for these animals.”

In southern Pima County, the number of rabid animals found has decreased, though the Patagonia-Sonoita area of Santa Cruz County still has activity, Fink said.

“There’s no doubt that what’s going on in southern Arizona is real, and we need to keep an eye on it …. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will die down this year.”

Ann Posegate is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at aposegate@email.arizona.edu.

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