KNAU and Arizona News
4:57 pm
Thu April 30, 2009

Rabies rampant in northern Arizona

Flagstaff, AZ – A bobcat walks into a bar. That may sound like the beginning of a joke but this is no laughing matter. In Cottonwood a bobcat with rabies attacked two people inside a bar. And there have been several other incidents of bobcats and foxes attacking people in northern Arizona. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports.

SFX: blowing wind, cars in the distance, ladies chattering

The wind blows through the tall ponderosa pines at a popular trail just east of Flagstaff. It seems like a great day for a hike until you see several notices posted at the trail head. In big bold letters they warn hikers of the rabid foxes that have been found in that area recently and suggest people take precautions like hike with a stick and keep dogs on a short leash.

Cindy Martin and Loretta Mendez power walk Fat Man's Loop four days a week and say they haven't seen anything unusual.

MARTIN/MENDEZ: (We're) not really concerned. We're aware of it we said we'll pick up a stick and shoe em away. I even brought my dogs up here the other day and kept them on a leash. I haven't really seen anything. Do you walk with a stick? No a water bottle (laughs) we'll use that as weapons.

The Flagstaff area has seen an unprecedented number of rabies cases in wild animals - 24 in the last four months. Flagstaff had only seen it in bats until 2001. That's when Coconino County Health Department Director Barbara Worgess says there was a bat skunk encounter.

WORGESS: I don't know if it was a sick bat that a skunk ate or a sick bat attacked a skunk and bit it.

So the Health Department caught, vaccinated and released as many animals as they could. That seemed to work. But the number of cases spiked a few years later. They tried an experiment that was alleviating the issue in other parts of the country. They disguised oral vaccines as food and distributed them in areas the skunks liked to hang out. That kept the virus at bay until this year. Now the health department has issued a quarantine to keep pets and their owners safe. And the agency is planning to distribute more vaccine packets.

Worgess takes rabies very seriously because it is fatal to mammals if it goes untreated.

WORGESS: Rabies is a virus and it's spread through a bite. The virus is in the saliva and it migrates from the point of the bite up thru the nervous system until it reaches the brain. Once it reaches the brain it starts to replicate. Once that virus starts to replicate in the brain that's when the animal becomes infectious.

That's when the fox or skunk show erratic behavior like staggering or foaming at the mouth. Worgess says they behave as if they're driven to bite.

She says Arizona has always had several incidents of rabies in skunks close to the border. But as Tucson and Phoenix expand, animal habitats shrink. So the disease spreads more quickly.

WORGESS: Clearly rabies has been moving north. And that could be a result of growth in the southern and middle parts of the state because certainly places like Yavapai County have also seen an increase.

Yavapai County Community Health Services spokesman Brian Supalla agrees population growth plays a role.

SUPALLA: Towns and communities and suburbs and subdivisions are moving farther and farther out in the country. We find us more in wild animal habitat than before not just when we go out for long hikes and camping we're finding them in our backyard because actually our backyard used to be their backyard.

While there are fewer cases in Yavapai County, the incidents have been more dramatic. In the last few months bobcats have attacked people in Cottonwood and Prescott Valley. Foxes have bitten hikers in Prescott.

But the county has had to rely on public education to keep people and their pets safe. That's because the federal government decided it wasn't a good candidate for the vaccine packets because the strain of rabies is already so well established there.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.