Rabies and wildlife

Rabies is a terrible disease and is still a major killer on a worldwide level. However, through public education and vaccination campaigns, its effects on humans have been restricted to relatively few cases in the United States in the past few decades, with most of those cases resolved safely through early diagnosis and treatment. It is important to take rabies seriously, but also to know the facts about rabies and what really works in containing its spread, since private pest control companies in particular will “spin” the facts to generate business…

  • Certain “rabies vector” species commonly found in the Pittsburgh area – raccoons, groundhogs, and skunks – are systematically trapped and killed after a resident complains to Animal Control services. Other rabies vectors that are subject to systematic killing are foxes and coyotes. The status of bats is currently variable due to the threat of white nose syndrome, which could potentially wipe out a species that plays a vital role in the ecosystem.

  • Most animals can contract any strain of rabies, but there are five distinct strains: bat, skunk, raccoon, fox and canine.

  • Previously limited to the South-Eastern states, the raccoon strain of rabies has been developing in the East Coast states since the 1970s as a result of hunters from the South who came to hunt in West Virginia, bringing their own raccoons and coon hounds with them. They released infected animals into a healthy population and the problem began. The East Coast is now considered the main area of concern in relation to raccoon rabies.

  • Reported rabies cases have been steadily dropping in Pennsylvania since 2006 (2006: 504 cases, 2009: 388), with the help of oral vaccination programs.  (Note that reported rabies cases represent an estimated 10% of the actual number of cases never witnessed/reported.)

  • Only 5 opossums have ever reported positive in Pennsvylvania, and those were all in the 1983-1985 period!

  • Being bitten by a rabid animal is not fatal, because post-exposure treatment is available, and is 100% guaranteed to work if started promptly. Deaths have occurred when the victim did not realize he had been bitten, or refused to be treated.

  • There has only been one recorded instance of a human death due to raccoon rabies, and that individual had no recall of ever having any contact with a raccoon. The case remains a mystery.

  • You are much more likely to be struck by lightning than to contract rabies in South-Western PA.

  • Seeing a raccoon or skunk outside in daylight is not necessarily a sign of rabies, especially during denning season. However if an animal is behaving strangely (appearing disoriented, unafraid of humans, or paralyzed), call the police or animal control and do not approach.

A raccoon seen out and about in daylight isn't necessarily rabid... the food temptation may just be too great, especially with babies to feed. Always use caution though.

Controlling rabies: trapping is not an effective solution

  • Wild Furbearer Conservation and Management in North America (Novak et al, 1987) provides data which shows that when raccoons exhibit low reproductive rates, you can trap out as much as 49% of the population and they will rebound back to their former level by the next breeding season. When raccoons exhibit high reproductive rates (typical after a trapping program has been implemented), you can trap out as much as 59% of the population and the population will replace itself by the next birthing season. A similar scenario has been observed among coyotes and other species. These figures clearly illustrate why trapping does not control wildlife populations.
  • The Center for Disease Control does not recommend the arbitrary killing of raccoons as a strategy to avert the rabies threat. As summarized by Dr. John Debbie, Public Health Veterinarian for New York State, “Trapping to control rabies is considered to be an exercise in futility in the face of a rabies outbreak, because the disease itself will limit the population, and clinically rabid animals are rarely caught in traps (Rabies Control in Wildlife, 1983).” Debbie has recommended vaccination as the only way to halt rabies.
  • Trappers claim to control other diseases as well yet there is no scientific literature available to support these claims. As a matter of fact, this practice most likely increases the presence of disease as trapping removes individual animals, typically healthy specimens, while the remaining animals have augmented litter sizes. Consequently, these young animals, lacking a natural immunity, increase the susceptibility of the existing population to further disease outbreaks.
  • Oral rabies vaccination programs on the other hand have been shown to work. The case of the state of Ohio, which has very few reported cases, testifies to the effectiveness of these vaccination programs. Funding is an issue though. HOP! figures that less money should be spent on trapping and more on funding vaccination programs. It’s just common sense…


Allegheny Health dept. oral rabies vaccination program:




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