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Putnam Health Department: Rabies Threat Increases in Spring

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Warm weather, longer days and more plentiful food are some of the reasons that wild animals tend to give birth in the spring.

Sometimes these baby animals stray from their mothers and wander alone into backyards, onto porches or into more wooded, secluded settings where well-meaning wildlife lovers think they need to be rescued. That is a mistake.

When people interfere with wildlife in their natural habitats, they often do more harm than good. They also put themselves at risk of exposure to fatal diseases such as rabies, even from a cute, small animal who appears healthy.

The Putnam County Department of Health receives reports from residents every spring about these intended “rescues,” and their environmental staff reminds everyone to leave the animals alone and not to even feed or touch them. Most young animals are simply hiding while awaiting their parents’ return from foraging nearby. They are not abandoned and their best chance for survival is being raised by their parents.

“These ‘rescues’ are made with good intentions, but young animals do not need rescuing and are prepared to survive without human intervention,” said Marianne Burdick, associate public health sanitarian, who supervises the rabies control program at the Putnam County Department of Health.

“People that feed, touch or remove wildlife from their natural environment are actually causing them harm. If there is a potential exposure to rabies because a person was bit, scratched or exposed to the animal’s saliva, they are costing the animal its life. The only way to ensure there was no rabies exposure is by testing the animal, which requires it to be euthanized. This is not an outcome anyone wants, so please leave wildlife, especially babies, alone.”

Rabies can affect a wide range of mammals, including racoons, skunks, bats, foxes, woodchucks, opossums, feral cats and, of course humans, and their pets, Burdick said. Last year the health department conducted more than 400 rabies investigations, including those connected to dog and cat bites, she said.

After a bite ​from a rabies-infected animal, the virus travels to the brain eventually causing a host of neurological symptoms. Health Commissioner Dr. Michael J. Nesheiwat describes the symptoms that initially may be similar to the flu while including a prickling or itching sensation at the bite site.

Other more serious symptoms associated with cerebral dysfunction occur, such as anxiety, confusion and agitation, followed by delirium, hallucinations and abnormal behaviors, Nesheiwat said.

“Seeking medical attention after a bite is essential,” he said. “Unfortunately, once these clinical symptoms occur, the disease is nearly always fatal and only supportive treatment available. This is why we must treat a person promptly after a bite, sometimes without even knowing for certain that the virus has been transmitted. The risks are just too high.”

So, what should a person do if they discover an animal that they think is injured or may need help? The best plan is to call a wildlife rehabilitator. These professionals are licensed and trained to assess the situation and care for orphaned or injured wildlife.

The state Department of Conservation (DEC) provides wildlife health information online and a database to search for local wildlife rehabilitators, depending on what type of animal is in question. Visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/261.html for more information.

In addition to resources available from the DEC, the health department works with Putnam AdvoCats to coordinate county efforts to reduce the numbers of feral cats who can also carry rabies. While educating the public about these animals, their efforts center on “TNR” – trapping, neutering and releasing the cats after rabies vaccination.

In 2020, 264 cats were captured and homes were found for nearly 50 percent of them. People interested in volunteering or donating to the Feral Cat Task Force, can call the health department at 845-808-1390 ext. 43160. Information on Putnam AdvoCats is available at www.putnamadvocats.org/.

While racoon and skunk bites represent a portion of rabies treatments, the main source of rabies in Putnam remains bats. Safely capturing the bat is an important way to avoid the unnecessary treatment, which is a series of shots over a two-week period. A popular instructional video on how to do this is on the department website at www.putnamcountyny.com/how-to-capture-a-bat

To protect residents’ health, all animal bites or contact with wild animals should be reported promptly to the Health Department at 845-808-1390. After hours or on weekends or holidays, call that number and press “3” for the environmental health hotline. A representative will promptly return your call. The Health Department should also be called promptly if a family pet encounters a wild animal. Rubber gloves should be used for any immediate handling of the potentially exposed pet.

The mission of the Putnam County Department of Health, nationally accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board, is to improve and protect the health of the local community of nearly 100,000 residents. Core services include community health assessment, disease surveillance and control, emergency preparedness, environmental health protection, family health promotion and health education.

For more information, visit www.putnamcountyny.com, or visit our social media sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @PutnamHealthNY.

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