NARRAGANSETT – The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) confirmed two individuals have been treated for exposure to the rabies virus since September after encounters with rabid wild animals in Narragansett. The department also noted four wild animals from Narragansett have tested positive for the potentially deadly virus since March.
Four animals submitted for testing at RIDOH’s State Health Laboratories have tested positive for rabies this year. The first came in March and concerned a rabid skunk on Tarzwell Drive. In August, a raccoon spotted on Kathy Street tested positive for the virus. Then, in September, a woodchuck/groundhog seen on Onondega Road was confirmed to possess the virus. Most recently, this month, a skunk on Wild Field Farm Road tested positive for rabies after an encounter with a dog in the yard of a residence on the street.
“We received confirmation that another skunk that was captured on Friday, Oct. 18, after attacking a dog, tested positive for rabies,” wrote Narragansett Animal Control on its Facebook page on Oct. 21.
Residents have become concerned regarding the prevalence of the virus locally, though RIDOH stated the increase in confirmed cases of the virus was not cause for alarm.
“The number of rabid animals identified in any given community varies from year to year,” said Joseph Wendelken, RIDOH Public Information Officer. “The number of rabies-positive animals [confirmed in Narragansett] in 2019 has been higher than expected, but we’re dealing with relatively small numbers. The increase in 2019 is not considered statistically significant, meaning that the increase is likely due to chance. For example, we have seen year-to-year increases like this in other communities in the past.”
According to RIDOH, five wild animals from Narragansett were tested by the department in 2016; four in 2017 and nine in 2018. All of these tests were negative. In 2019, seven animals have so far been tested by RIDOH. Four have tested positive. According to Monica Tutko, who works full time as a Narragansett Animal Control Officer, the animal controld department has received over 50 calls for animals that “appear to be sickly in some manner” since June of last year. The animal control officer also stated in July of this year, a fox believed to be possibly rabid attacked multiple people and animals in a 24-hour period and was never caught for testing, despite efforts to do so.
Tutko said the situation in Narragansett needed to be taken “quite seriously.”
RIDOH said while the increase did not indicate a concerning trend upward, residents should still take precautions to decrease risk of exposure.
“You can’t tell if an animal has rabies by just looking at it,” said Wendelken when asked how rabid animals could be identified. “The only way doctors can know for sure if an animal or a person has rabies is to do laboratory tests. A clue though is if the animal is acting strangely. Some animals may act mad when they have rabies. They will be hostile and may try to bite people or other animals. Other animals may act timid or shy when they have rabies. A wild animal might move slowly or act tame. The best thing to do is to never feed or approach a wild animal. Be careful of pets that you do not know.”
One resident posted to a private resident Facebook page about a September encounter he had with a rabid woodchuck that left both he and his wife in need of multiple shots after a recommendation for treatment from RIDOH. The resident concluded the post by asking what was being done to combat the rise in local rabid wild animals.
If a human is bitten by an animal believed to be possibly rabid, washing the wounded area with soap and water for 10-15 minutes is recommended by RIDOH to help remove the virus. The department also strongly suggests contacting a doctor or hospital ER immediately and alerting the local animal control officer of the incident in an effort to further protect others from potential exposure. The public can also call the Rhode Island Department of Health Rabies Control Program to report an exposure (401-222-2577 Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; 401-276-8046 after hours). If the animal is a stranger’s pet, ask for the owner’s contact information, according to RIDOH.
The department also had recommendations when it comes to pet safety.
“If your pet has been bitten, try to find out what animal attacked your pet,” said Wendelken. “Do not touch the attacking animal. Wear rubber gloves and use a hose to wash your pet’s wounds. Do not touch your pet with bare hands. There may be saliva from the attacking animal on your pet. Call your pet’s vet immediately, even if the wound is minor. Local animal control should be contacted to report the incident.”
RIDOH stated that even if a pet has already been recently vaccinated for the virus, a veterinarian should still be contacted immediately and the incident should still be reported to the local animal control. Further recommendations include never approaching a wild animal, being careful around pets one is not familiar with, refraining from petting stray cats or dogs and contacting local animal control if any animal is observed acting strangely.
In the United States, animals most likely to carry rabies are wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and woodchucks. Dogs, cats, and ferrets can also carry rabies, but they are less likely to be infected because of the high vaccination rates among pets.
“Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease,” concluded Wendelken. “The virus infects the central nervous system. If a person does not receive the appropriate medical care after a potential rabies exposure, the virus can cause disease in the brain, ultimately resulting in death. However, rabies can be prevented by vaccinating pets, staying away from wildlife, and seeking medical care after potential exposures before symptoms start.”
Due to the recent exposures, the Narragansett Animal Control is stepping up its number of posts concerning the virus on social media and is hosting a public rabies vaccination clinic for pets at the Narragansett Community Center on Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. $10 cash only and attendees are asked to bring previous pet vaccination records if available. The general public is invited and attendance is not restricted based on Narragansett residence.
Rabies is considered a rare disease in the United States with fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases per year.
Narragansett Animal Control can be reached at (401) 789-1091 ext. 223 or via email at email@example.com.