A recent rabies outbreak in the wild animal population of Santa Barbara County has left Animal Services officials deeply concerned for county public health.
Mostly in the central and northern portions of the county, unusually high numbers of rabies-infected skunks and bats have been reported. Additionally, Animal Services reported a case of rabies in a fox as recently as last week, prompting concern by wild animal experts of possible widespread pet and human exposure to the disease. Responding to the immediate increased risk of rabies, Animal Services Director Jan Glick encouraged pet owners to get rabies vaccinations and dog license tags for their animals, as required by law. “We want all the pet owners to know to vaccinate their pets, be on the lookout for sick skunks and alert officers as quickly as possible,” Glick said. “[Animal Services] officers will respond quickly and take the effective animal into custody.”
Santa Barbara County officials will continue to remind all dog owners that dog licenses are required by law for all dogs over four months of age. However, penalties for unlicensed animals will be waived this May to promote licensing. Issued by the county, current dog licenses laws require the license to be affixed to the dog at all times - a current rabies certificate is also required to purchase a dog license.
Glick described rabies as a fatal neurological disease that invades the brain and causes a breakdown of the nervous system. “It’s a painful way to die,” Glick said. “The risk toward people is our main concern and our rabies shots are extremely effective. The straightforward and easy solution is to make sure your animal is vaccinated.” Rabies vaccinations are recommended for all warm-blooded domestic animals including cats, horses and livestock. Cats are also at high-risk due to rabies in area bat populations.
Animals that are outdoors can be exposed to rabies from terrestrial wild animals, including skunks and bats, which become more antagonistic as a result of the affliction. “When the skunks get rabies, some of them get quite aggressive,” Glick said. “We’ve had the skunks chasing domestic animals and become more aggressive toward people. People must take the necessary precautions to not get bitten by these animals.”
Michele Mickiewicz, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept., said pet owners need to be proactive to ensure safety from rabies. “We want people to be aware that rabies still exists in the wild population and we are seeing cases of it,” Mickiewicz said. “They need to avoid contact with potentially infected animals and ensure that their own animals are protected as well to avoid catching the disease.”
If bitten, one should not try to capture the rabid animal as to avoid additional exposure to the disease, Glick explaned. “The best thing is to call us: We’re going to respond as fast as we can,” Glick said. “We hate to put anyone at risk to be bitten because they are trying to capture the animal. We don’t want risk any additional bites.”
The county provides a rabies clinic once a week at the Santa Maria Animal Center on Foster Road. During May, the clinics will be held every Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and operates on a first come, first served basis.
Benjamin Gottlieb is an Independent intern.