The Niagara County Health Department kicked off its rabies awareness month on Friday, while noting that dozens of animals already have been tested this year for the virus.
While no human is known to have contracted rabies throughout New York state in recent years, two raccoons have already been discovered to be carriers in the county out of 36 animals tested since Jan. 1.
James J. Devald, county environmental health director, said the virus was non-existent in the state prior to the early 1990s. But when hunters in Florida brought infected raccoons farther north, rabies began spreading through other animals until it reached the western region of the state.
“Raccoons are the biggest rabid animal we have,” he said.
Devald noted that rabies has to potential to infect any mammal, especially dogs, cats and livestock. And when it does, it affects the nervous system causing paralysis and changes in behavior such as foaming at the mouth, aggression and agitation.
The virus predominantly affects wildlife, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including skunks, foxes and bats, among others.
“We test an animal when it’s involved with any potential rabies exposure like a dog outside that tangles with a raccoon,” Devald said. “We had a couple bats. We can’t take the chance whether a bat has bit somebody or something because the bite is so small. So we have them tested.”
The county Health Department also urges residents to have minimal contact with wild animals by keeping a safe distance, while it also suggests calling an animal control officer should an animal exhibit signs of rabies.
Getting a pet vaccinated ahead of time through a veterinarian or free rabies health clinics through the county can also lesson the change that an animal will become infected.
If an animal is bitten or scratched, residents should wash the wound with soap and water for 15 minutes.
The county’s next rabies clinic will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on June 9 at the Hyde Park Oasis -Oasis/Centennial Pavillion, 911 Robbins Drive, Niagara Falls, where free injections will be given to dogs, cats and ferrets.
For more information on rabies, contact the Niagara County Department of Health at 439-7444, after hours at 439-7430, or visit the New York State Department of Health’s website at www.health.state.ny.us.