A Viola man is receiving post-exposure vaccination for rabies after he handled kittens in a litter attacked by a skunk.
Because it was the third case of rabies in Fulton County this year the Arkansas Department of Health has issued a rabies alert for the county. Fulton is one of nine counties under rabies alerts in Arkansas.
An alert is issued in any county when three cases are reported within a 12-month period. The cases in Arkansas are endemic to the northern and western portions of the state.
The man shot the skunk in front of his home when it displayed aggressive traits not normal for a healthy animal in the wild. He was careful not to hit the skunk's head, and immediately took the skunk to the Fulton County Health Unit. The unit sent the animal's head to the state health department where it tested positive for rabies.
The man was not bitten, but is taking the vaccination as a precaution on the advice of health authorities.
Dr. Tom McChesney, state epidemiologist, said 35 samples -- heads of dead animals sent to the health department's laboratory -- have tested positive so far this year, already eclipsing the 32 positives in all of last year.
"We may well go up over 100," he said. "For every one (tested) here, there are probably 25 in nature."
Dr. Donna Shaw of Shaw Veterinary Clinic in Highland said it is not only required by law to have pets vaccinated, it is also an important safety precaution.
"The only barrier we have between us and wildlife is our animals," Shaw said. "And if we can keep them up-to-date on their vaccinations that provides us with a protective barrier from rabies."
Area veterinarians have been holding spring rabies clinics to vaccinate pets in Fulton, Izard and Sharp counties. Drs. Robert and Kathleen Mills of North Arkansas Veterinary Clinic in Fulton County west of Ash Flat vaccinated 200 pets at a 4H mobile clinic in Horseshoe Bend March 23, and performed another 250 in-clinic vaccinations during the week of March 25-30.
Dr. Roger Shaw, also of Shaw Veterinary Clinic, conducted a rabies clinic in Izard County April 13 and has scheduled a mobile rabies clinic for Sharp County May 4.
"In our area, the most dangerous animal is a skunk," Dr. Robert Mills said. "But it doesn't always have the same symptoms."
He said three years ago a dog owner brought an ill dog to the clinic. The dog had a fever and its head was tilted. Mills said he thought it was an ear infection and treated it. But a day later the dog came down with "full-blown rabies." The owner had to be treated for exposure.
Mills warned, "If you see a skunk in the daytime that acts like it's not afraid of people, you'd better stay away from it."
But he said sometimes dog owners think their pets are rabid just because they are slobbering. "A lot of things cause a dog to slobber," he said. "There needs to be some kind of neurological signs" to suspect rabies. A change in attitude, such as becoming unusually docile or aggressive, is a typical symptom of rabies, he explained.
Of the 35 rabies cases in Arkansas so far this year, 31 were skunks, three were dogs and one was a calf.
Rabies is always fatal and there is no known cure, but McChesney said post-exposure vaccinations prevent the virus from reaching the brain. Rabies occurs three to eight weeks after exposure, and post-exposure treatment usually begins no later than seven days after exposure.
McChesney said the appearance of skunks during the daytime or an unusual number of skunks dead on the highway indicate the likely presence of rabies in the area. Skunks or other wildlife close to populated areas should be reported.
"When a skunk is rabid, it's mean," he said. "If it's in the furious stage it will take out after you."
If a wild animal suspected of rabies cannot be penned and must be shot, McChesney said care should be taken not to hit the head. If the head is damaged the brain cannot be tested for rabies.