Raccoons and Rabies

by Eline Lybarger, Staff Writer

A small raccoon climbed the 10 feet to our deck. His fur was luxurious; his mask clearly defined—adorable. When he saw me at the sliding glass door he came over, stood up, patted himself, dropped down, came to the door, and pawed it. Obviously, he thought I was going to feed him so others must have been feeding him.

Raccoons can be very destructive. Some friends fed them dog food in large plastic bowls. One day, the weather was hot, so they decided to work in their yard early in the morning, neglecting to put out food. The solid inside door to their house was open, but the screen door was latched. The raccoons arrived; finding no food they simply ripped a hole in the screen door and went inside. The homeowners tried to get them out, but fearing they would be bitten, called animal control. By the time they were removed cupboard doors and hardwood floors were scratched and more than the cookie jar was broken.

In another incident, two large dogs had cornered a raccoon. The owner, fearing for the raccoon, ran to the rescue. By the time he reached his dogs they were the ones needing stitches. Raccoon claws and teeth are sharp.

Those adorable bandit-faced beggars are also very smart. They have figured out that if they defecate at the base of a tree, before they go up, they won’t need to walk through it coming down. So, at the bottom of the tree is a pile of possible pathogens. Of course, you don’t want to go near it, but you also need to keep your dog away.

Raccoons pose another more serious threat—rabies. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control reported that in the US in 2018, of all cases of wild to domestic infec- tion, raccoons accounted for 1,499 cases or 30%. Rabies affects the brain. Especially in the early stages, it is difficult to tell if an animal has rabies. They may simply be lethargic or more aggressive and you don’t need to be bitten to be infected; a simple scratch will do the job. In humans the infection begins with flu-like symptoms, fever, prickling or itching at the entry site. Next is anxiety, confusion, agita- tion, then delirium, hallucinations and fear of water. This last stage lasts 2-10 days and results in death.

If the possibly infecting animal that has bitten or scratched you is captured, it can be tested and you will know for certain if you have been infected. This is done by removing the brain of the animal, then thin slices are mounted on glass microscope slides, treated with a solution that discloses the infected cells, and finally a microbiologist views the slides and makes a determination.

Unfortunately, the animal can’t always be captured, which puts the person at risk. Since the virus travels from the entry site to the brain over the course of a week or even months, there is time for treatment. However, the treatment is several shots in the abdomen over a month with severe side effects. In a lab I’m familiar with, there were only three out of 50 med-techs qualified to test for rabies. Every six months their immunity was tested and if it was below a critical point, they had to go through the vaccines. When this happened, they were not seen for a month and when they did return, they were at least 10 pounds lighter, looked as if they should be in bed, and frequently took naps on the first aid couch. You definitely want to avoid this.

We all feed the birds and often raccoons will glean the seeds that have fallen to the ground. This does bring them into close contact with humans, but hopefully they do not associate humans with food. When you hand feed raccoons, you put everyone at risk so: