A bite worse than its bark

At the sight of a skunk most people have no problem stifling their inner St. Francis of Assisi.  Known in frontier days as “polecats,” skunks are medium-size wild carnivores that, left to their own devices, feast on juicy grubs and rodents.

Modern suburban skunks forage through tasty garbage, and help themselves to unattended pet food and drink.  They are adept at trespassing through fences.

When these furry critters with a white road stripe down their back are startled or threatened they lift their bushy black tails, and spray a world famous perfume called “musk.”

Up close and personal a large dose of oily musk brings on nausea, and in the eyes it acts like tear gas.  Forget getting it out of your clothing without enough bleach to ruin the fabric, and plan to wear a nose clip if your pet gets sprayed.

A lesser known but important fact about skunks is that they carry and transmit rabies. 

Rabies is a fatal virus that moves into the central nervous system and brain then makes its way to organs including the salivary glands from where it jumps to humans and other animals via unprovoked biting.

A year ago a bicyclist on a Lewisville street was attacked by a skunk that bit him three times.  A skunk in Aubrey entered a residence then bit the surprised owner.  Sheriff’s deputies caught the animals–that tested positive for rabies.  County and state health departments and local medical personnel worked with both victims who received a series of shots loaded with rabies antibodies.

Most of us associate rabies with domestic dogs, but Christine Hastings of Double Oak–a beautiful gal with more hair than St. Francis ever thought of having–manages Flower Mound’s Animal Services facility on Justin Road, and says her team never gets calls about rabid dogs or cats.

When was the last time you saw or even heard about a loose vicious dog or cat with white foam dripping from its mouth?

“Local pet owners are good about keeping their pets vaccinated,” she said.

The rabies vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies, many of which will live in the vaccinated body for years.

“Puppies get vaccinated early in life, then again a year later.  Thereafter pets receive boosters every three years.  Most people keep up with their pets’ shots,” Mrs. Hastings said.

Denton County has seen up to two dozen cases of human rabies in a given year of record keeping, but the victims have usually been bitten by skunks or bats.  Nationwide the common vectors of rabies are wildlife: bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes.

Droughts and habitat destruction have sometimes forced these animal populations toward human settlements in search of food and water.  In 1995 after the monster Hurricane Gilbert hit most of Central America some small Texas border towns without animal control services experienced an influx of hungry, infected coyotes that bit local dogs, that bit local people, and ignited a public health problem before the local authorities got the situation in hand.

If you are not St. Francis, and a wild animal approaches you in broad daylight, something is wrong.  Some rabid animals are aggressive and others are docile, but they will bite you.  Pay attention to the old proverb that says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Prevention includes avoiding contact with wild animals, even dead ones; vaccinating your pets on a regular basis; keeping pets inside at night; sealing your house to prevent wildlife from nesting in chimneys, eaves, and crawl spaces; closing pet doors at night; reporting strange-acting or sick unattended animals to animal control; and if someone has been bitten cleansing the wound immediately with lots of soap and water then seeing a physician in the office or emergency room as soon as possible.

“As viruses go, rabies is weak in the presence of soap,” Mrs. Hastings said, “the important thing is to overwhelm the virus with soap, and flush away as much of the bite saliva and virus as possible.”

Rabies virus incubates or strengthens, for 3-7 weeks, but may do so for a year or more.  Once the disease symptoms appear a difficult death follows within days.

In 1971 a U.S. citizen made medical history by recovering from rabies, but that appears to be the only recovery ever recorded.

There is no cure for rabies, only prevention in the form of avoidance, vaccination, and prophylaxis (washing and antibody serum injections) after contact.  Health professionals consider a wild animal bite high risk for rabies.

“When we can catch wild animals that have bitten, we test them immediately,” Mrs. Hastings said.

Rabies testing is not for the squeamish.  The animal’s head is sent to the State Health Department where the brain is scoured for presence of the virus.

The Humane Society reports that over 4.5 million dog bites occur in the U.S. every year, mostly to children.

“Vaccination records make everyone’s lives easier,” Mrs. Hastings said about domestic dog bites, “Without them we have to quarantine the animal for 10 days to see if rabies symptoms develop.  Unknown to their owners they may have fought with or been bitten by or eaten all or part of a rabid animal.”

Texas state law requires all adopted shelter animals to be vaccinated for rabies.

“We check domestic animal pick-ups for identification tags and/or subcutaneous microchips,” she said, “This helps us determine vaccination status.  Captured animals are stressed and frightened.  We try to find their owners quickly.”

Mrs. Hastings chuckled about being called a dog catcher, “We provide a wider range of services.  When we receive a call about a dog we entice the animal and try to get its trust and cooperation.  Our best tool is a bag of Pupperoni treats.”

Dogs, she said, tend to stay in their own neighborhood when they get loose.  They leave the area when chased, and may become lost or disoriented then exhibit problem behaviors.

“Most of the time if we follow the dog in a non-threatening way it will lead us to its house and open gate.  We put it back in the yard then close the gate behind us,” she said, “We leave a note for the owners so they know what happened.”

Animal Services keeps a drawer of “tools” for checking a stray animal’s willingness to bite.  The most amusing device is a vinyl human-looking forearm and hand on the end of a long rod, “Better this than one of us!” Mrs. Hastings said with a smile.

The city impound, called the pound for short, is a state-of-the-art kennel; a glistening clean facility in which the feral smell so familiar in vets’ offices is completely absent.

“We have two full-time technicians who do a wonderful job keeping this place clean,” Mrs. Hastings said, “We also sort animals in separate rooms according to their needs.”

Quarantined animals are housed away from sick animals that are housed away from aggressive animals that are housed away from frightened animals that are housed away from animals ready for adoption.  There are two spotless, fenced play facilities where the animals exercise daily.

Mrs. Hastings showed off new cots installed in the individual kennels for animals awaiting adoption, “These were recently donated to us.”

Each kennel has a thick viewing window on one side, and a note of details about the animal taped to the exterior of the window.  Skittish animals may rest behind an opaque curtain to help calm them.

“Our animals are free to willing homes,” Mrs. Hastings said.

The pound does not provide any animals to research facilities, and personnel work with multiple private adoption groups to place all animals.  Euthanasia is not a common practice.

“Adoptive owners sign a contract to pr
ovide us with proof of rabies immunization and spay/neuter as necessary within a certain timeframe” she said.

This keeps everyone in compliance with state law.

As officers of the Flower Mound Municipal Court, pound personnel may issue tickets for non-compliance, and these may result in fines that range from $200 to $500.

“Compliance is rarely a problem,” Mrs. Hastings said.

Flower Mound Animal Services is located at 3950 Justin Rd. next to the soccer fields. They are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Call 972-874-6390.


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