Protect Yourself: Get the Rabies 411

Photo | Robert Burton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Raccoons are the primary carriers of rabies in Montgomery County.

Photo | Robert Burton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Raccoons are the primary carriers of rabies in Montgomery County.

Two rabid raccoons were reported in the city in June and July of this year—a fairly typical number—and several more cases were found countywide.

As a result, although there is certainly no reason to panic, Animal Control Division Chief Lisa Holland said Gaithersburg residents should know how the disease is transmitted and what to do if they see a rabid animal.

Rabies is a virus that affects mammals’ central nervous systems and is spread primarily through the saliva via a bite.

On average, three to five wild animals in Gaithersburg test positive for the rabies virus every year. Any warm-blooded mammal can contract the virus, but raccoons, bats and foxes are the primary carriers in Montgomery County, Holland said.

A total of 23 rabid animals were reported in Montgomery County this year, along with 26 in Frederick County and 14 in Prince George’s.

Overall in Maryland, 259 rabid animals were reported, 63 percent of which were raccoons. Bats were a distant second at 14 percent.

Rabid animals can be aggressive, stagger, or act disorientated, Holland said.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “They’ll stumble around, walk in circles. It’s often like they’re drunk.”

That happens, she explained, because the virus travels up the spine to the cerebellum, which controls motor skills.

Most people are exposed to rabies when they try to rescue sick or injured wild animals, or when they handle a pet without gloves after it has tangled with a wild animal. Rabies in saliva on the pet’s fur can find its way into a person’s body through a break in the skin.

“When people look outside and they see their pet fighting with another animal, their first thought is to rush outside, get their animal away, and immediately go through the animal’s fur with their fingers and look for an injury,” Holland said. “That introduces the possibility of exposure. If your animal gets into a fight with something, check it out, but put a pair of gloves on first.”

Holland said only one person that she knows of has been bitten by a rabid animal in the 26 years she has been with the city’s Department of Animal Control. In that case, a dog’s owner tried to break up a fight between the dog and a rabid raccoon.

In addition to staying out of animal confrontations, there are other steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.

  • Report any sick or injured wildlife immediately to Animal Control at 301.258.6343, or 301.279.8000 after hours.
  • Do not try to capture the animal yourself, but keep an eye on its location from a safe distance.
  • Teach your children not to approach and touch wildlife, including feral cats.
  • Keep your pets current on their rabies vaccinations.
  • Make sure you have taken adequate measures so that bats cannot enter your home.

Holland also recommended that owners get their pets vaccinated.

The Montgomery County Animal Services Division hosts five to six rabies clinics per year, staffed by licensed veterinarians. There is no fee for the rabies vaccination, but a city license must be purchased at the clinic, located at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in Rockville, 14645 Rothgeb Dr.