Walkin' Wild Skunk Rescue

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Rabies

        

   Is there a skunk in your yard and you are worried it might have rabies?  Do you see it during the day?  Is it spraying your dog?  The majority of skunks you see will not have rabies.  Most of them are only taking opportunity to feed from your pet dish or clear your yard of bugs and mice.  Even a skunk seen in daylight is most likely a mother with a litter of kittens to nurse.  This is not to say that you shouldn't be concerned.  But before you pull out your shotgun and blow it away take a moment to notice what I call The Three A's of Rabies - Appearance, Activity and Attitude. I created this simple means of judging the likely-hood of whether or not a skunk is rabid so people can better determine the health of a skunk in their yard. Hopefully this method will save many skunk lives.  

  Be aware that anytime you call animal control to pick up a trapped skunk the majority of them will kill the skunk even if it is healthy, and not always humanely 

 

This is a picture of a rabid skunk. Notice the unkempt fur and mangy appearance.  Also the hunched up body posture.  This skunk was uncoordinated and appeared as if drunk. He did not protest that I was near the way a healthy skunk would have. I took these pictures myself and turned the skunk in for testing.

       My Three A's of Rabies: 

   Appearance - Is the fur well groomed and healthy looking? Does it have good body posture and walk normally? This is a healthy skunk. 

  Or is the fur unkempt and dirty? Does it appear as if it is drunk, uncoordinated? This could be an ill animal.

   Activity - What is the skunk doing? Is it eating bugs from the yard, or food from your pets dish?  Does it move and react with purpose and attention?  This is a healthy animal. 

  Or is it just sleeping in the middle of the yard, or wandering aimlessly? Does it appear to be injured in the back legs or partially paralyzed? This could be an ill animal.

   Attitude - Is the skunk alert and react by fluffing its tail and stomping its feet?  Does it stand its ground in your presence and run away when you back off?  This is a healthy animal.

   Or does it not care if you or your pet approach it?  Does it attack pets or people unprovoked?  This could be an ill animal.  

  You should NEVER approach a skunk who appears to be ill!  Call animal control to handle this animal. 

   Rabies: there are two kinds - aggressive and dumb rabies.  Their symptoms are very much as they sound. Most importantly know this - not all skunks carry the rabies virus, they have to be infected with it. 
    With aggressive rabies the animal becomes aggressive, attacking without provocation.  Think about skunk behavior for a minute.  Skunks do not normally attack, they are not fighters, they are defenders. Given every opportunity a skunk will run away rather than have to defend or worse fight.  But when they are faced with a barking, charging dog or kids with rocks, etc.  they spray to defend themselves. They do not charge and bite.  So if a situation is a skunk who is attacking, charging and biting without cause then I would advise calling animal control to kill the animal.  And if a human has been bitten by a skunk always immediately seek medical attention! Do not delay, go to the emergency room. Rabies is almost 100% fatal, do not take chances. If a pet has been bitten then it needs to be quarantined for a minimum of two weeks.  Talk to your vet for advice on this situation. Even if the pet has had their rabies vaccination it may need another one for extra protection. But even then it is possible for the pet to contract the virus.  Yes, it is still possible to contract the virus even if one has been vaccinated. It is not likely, but it is possible.  Seek medical attention of the human or veterinary kind immediately.  Once symptoms occur it is too late.

   Dumb rabies is when the animal becomes very disoriented, uncaring if approached by pets or humans - meaning there is no reaction to your presence,they may be sleeping in broad daylight out in open spaces. This is what brings on the idea that all skunks in the daylight are rabid.  But you have to pay attention to what the skunk is doing!  How it is behaving.  If it is wandering around with its nose to the ground, digging up the yard looking for bugs it is a healthy skunk.  If it is eating from your pet dish or drinking from a water bowl it is a healthy skunk. If it throws its tail up and stomps its feet when it becomes aware of you this is a healthy skunk! 
  If it acts like it is drunk, uncoordinated, uncaring, this is an ill animal. It may exhibit partial or full paralysis rendering it unable to run away as it normally would if it were healthy.  Call animal control for assistance.  Unless you are a trained wildlife rehabilitator with your rabies vaccinations who knows what you are doing I do not recommend trying to handle this animal yourself!  Always call animal control. 
  There are other illness and conditions that can have very similar symptoms as rabies, such as severe dehydration, severe parasite infestation, and distemper to name a few.  But trying to tell the difference is not a safe choice unless you are a trained wildlife rehabilitator.
   The course of the rabies virus varies per animal.   Not all skunks carry the rabies virus.  They have to be infected with it.  An animal is infected with the virus by being bitten by another animal who is shedding the virus.  The virus can remain harbored inactive within the system for an undetermined amount of time.  It could be as long as 6 months.  At some point the virus becomes active, maybe triggered by stress, or a weakened immune system caused by severe parasites or illness perhaps. 
 Once the rabies virus becomes active symptoms begin to appear.  A rabid animal will lose their appetite, they lose coordination and orientation, and as it worsens they lose muscle control, paralyzing them.  It is a central nervous system disease. Their system shuts down.  When they become paralyzed or even partially paralyzed their throats and mouth stop working, they cannot swallow, thus causing their saliva to drool from their mouth. This is what is commonly referred to as "foaming of the mouth."  Rabies is also called hydrophobia, meaning afraid of water.  This is another of those early misconceptions.  A rabid animal is not "afraid" of water, it merely cannot drink it because it cannot swallow.   This active stage of rabies virus is known as the shedding stage.
It is only during this shedding stage and possibly a few days prior to obvious symptoms that the virus can be spread to another.  Even if an animal may be carrying the virus, if it is not in the actively symptomatic shedding stage it cannot be transmitted to another. Rabies is spread through the saliva glands thus infecting another unfortunate animal when bitten. It is logically spread more by the aggressive kind rather than the dumb by its very nature. The dumb version the animals typically do not bother anything unless they are disturbed, but rather prefer to be left alone. I do not know what causes it to be one or the other.   I do not believe that it is commonly spread by scratching, but I cannot say that it is not possible either.  Once the virus starts to shed and symptoms appear the animal will die within 10 days or less in most cases. 
 Rabies is NOT spread by means of musk, one cannot catch rabies by being sprayed by a skunk. 
   Visit the CDC for more comprehensive information.

 This is the same rabid skunk as pictured above.  Notice his unbalanced and mangy appearance. His hunched body posture. The base of his tail is dragging the ground. His ears are drooping down. He looks as if he is about to fall over. 

 

Below is a healthy skunk, with sleek, shiny fur, and good body posture. Though he carries his tail low behind him, a sign of casual concern, the base of his tail near the body is off the ground.  The sick skunk above was nearly dragging his rear end.

Murphy, another of Meggie's brothers.