State issues rabies warning after incident with raccoon

NEW CASTLE — The state urged caution this week after a person was bitten by a rabid raccoon while getting into their vehicle.

According to Delaware’s Division of Public Health in a news release, the incident occurred in the area of Hillview Avenue near the Del. 8 corridor. A public advisory was sent out for those who live or spend time in the area.

The rabies case was confirmed Tuesday after the raccoon was tested at the DPH Lab upon capture. The person bitten began treatment for the exposure and no further details were available.

“Rabies is endemic – meaning it is everywhere in Delaware,” DPH spokeswoman Jen Brestel said.

“There is no test that can be done on live animals to see if they have rabies. The animal must first be euthanized before brain tissue can be tested.”

As of Wednesday, DPH said it had confirmed three rabid animals out of 79 tests this year. Besides the recent rabid raccoon, two cats were also found to be infected.

There were nine animals confirmed to be rabid in 2019 — six raccoons, two cats and a skunk — out of 154 tests.

“In the United States, the rabies virus is mainly found in wild animals such as bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks but has also been found in domestic animals or pets such as dogs, cats and ferrets,” Ms. Brestel said.

According to the DPH, there has not been a human case of rabies in Delaware since 2018 when a Felton woman died of the disease. It was the first announced case in 80 years, DPH said.

“It is typically more common that a person is exposed to rabies, which is typically through a bite or scratch by an infected animal,” Ms. Brestel said.

On Friday, First State Animal Center Executive Director John Parana said his office may see four to five rabies cases a year in animals statewide, and well over 3,000 vaccinations are administered to quell the likelihood of disease.

“Many people think it’s an old issue that has been completely contained through vaccinations,” Mr. Parana said. “Unfortunately that’s not true.

“There are still many animals out there that are free roaming and can transfer the disease very quickly if infected.

“Those animals aren’t necessarily always in wooded or rural areas. They will travel into more densely populated areas where they might not always be expected.

“There’s still a concern that people take this lightly. We are in the trenches and know that it’s a significant concern if exposed.”

If exposed, treatment for humans has become far less physically severe than before.

“People still have to take shots but it isn’t four shots to the stomach as it used to be,” Mr. Parana said. “They can now be administered in the arm or leg. You still have to take precautionary measures because it’s a serious disease.”

First State Animal Center has taken an aggressive approach to vaccinations, providing traps to bring in feral animals who could carry diseases. Also the state provides support for rabies vaccinations “is doing a marvelous job getting all animals vaccinated.”

Two days a week, discounted vaccinations are provided at First State Animal Center. They can run from $10 to $20 depending on the circumstances, Mr. Parana said.

DPH advised anyone in the area who was potentially bitten, scratched or come in contact with a raccoon to immediately contact their health care provider or call the DPH Rabies Program at 744-4995. An epidemiologist is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If a pet is suspected to have been bitten, DPH recommended calling a private veterinarian or the Delaware Department of Agriculture at 698-4500 or via email at deanimalhealth@delaware.gov.

What to do, avoid

In the news release, DPH described rabies as “an infectious disease affecting the nervous system of humans and other mammals. Infection can occur through the bite or scratch of an infected animal or if saliva from such an animal gets into the eyes, nose, mouth or an opening in the skin.

“Rabies in humans and animals cannot be cured once symptoms appear, and therefore, if an animal that has exposed a human is unavailable to be quarantined or tested, DPH recommends that people receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment, a series of four vaccinations, as a precautionary measure.”

DPH shared recommendations when encountering animals behaving aggressively:

• Contact the DNREC’s Wildlife Section at 739-9912 or 735-3600. Staff will determine whether it is more appropriate to refer callers to a private nuisance wildlife control operator. A listing of nuisance wildlife control operators can be found online at wildlifehelp.org/.

• Do not throw items at the animal or make loud banging noises, which may startle the animal and cause it to attack. Instead, your initial response — if the animal is behaving in an aggressive manner or appears to be foaming at the mouth — should be to raise your hands above your head to make yourself appear larger to the animal while slowly backing away from it.

If the animal starts coming toward you, raise your voice and yell sternly at it “Get away!” If all that fails, use any means to protect yourself including throwing an object at the animal or trying to keep it away by using a long stick, shovel or fishing pole.

• If you encounter a stray or feral domestic animal behaving aggressively, contact the Office of Animal Welfare at 255-4646.

Also, if encountering a sick or injured animal:

• To report a sick or hurt wild animal, Delaware residents are asked to contact the DNREC’s Wildlife Section at 739-9912 or 735-3600. Staff will determine whether it is more appropriate to refer callers to a permitted volunteer wildlife rehabilitator.

• If you encounter a sick stray domestic animal (cat or dog) contact the Office of Animal Welfare at 255-4646.

DPH said rabies is a preventable disease and that steps can prevent exposure:

• All dogs, cats, and ferrets 6 months of age and older are required by Delaware law to be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian.

• Pet owners can reduce the possibility of pets being exposed to rabies by keeping them indoors and not letting them roam free. It is especially important that pet owners who do allow their cats to roam outdoors vaccinate their pets.

• Do not touch or otherwise handle wild or unfamiliar animals, including cats and dogs, even if they appear friendly.

• Do not keep your pet’s food or water outdoors; bowls can attract wild and stray animals.

• Do not feed feral animals, including cats, as the risk of rabies in wildlife is significant.

• Spaying or neutering your pet may reduce the tendency to roam or fight and, thus, reduce the chance they will be exposed to rabies.

• Keep your garbage securely covered.

• Consider vaccinating livestock and horses as well. It is recommended to consult with your private veterinarian if you have any questions regarding whether your animal(s) should be vaccinated against rabies.

More information on the DPH rabies program is available at dhss.delaware.gov or by calling 1-866-972-9705 or 744-4995.

For more information on rabies, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at cdc.gov/rabies/.