Mild winter brings skunks back to Fauquier
Photo by LiquidLibrary
The skunks are back.
Thanks to a mild winter, the malodorous mustelids are out of their burrows early. While hard numbers on their population aren't available, some Fauquier veterinarians are concerned to see the early return of one of the state's biggest rabies carriers.
Conventional wisdom states that during long winters, rabid skunks die in their burrows instead of ranging out to potentially transmit the disease to other animals.
But the number of rabies carriers confirmed in lab testing actually decreased in 2012 -- after another mild winter, said Environmental Health Manager Gary Switzer.
In 2012, 19 animals, three of which were skunks, tested positive for rabies in Fauquier County. In 2011, Fauquier had 29 confirmed rabid animals, four of which were skunks.
"It's hard to tell what may be decreasing that number," Switzer said. "Rabies is hard to predict."
Statewide, skunks and raccoons are the biggest carriers of the disease -- 422 out of 560 cases of confirmed rabies cases in Virginia came from these two types of animals.
The best way to protect pets is to vaccinate them against rabies every one to three years, said Lisa Gibson, veterinarian at Compassion Animal Hospital in Bealeton.
Those vaccines are, in fact, required by law for dogs and cats in Fauquier County, according to the sheriff's office website.
Keeping current with rabies vaccines isn't just a matter of avoiding fines, but saving the lives of your pets, Gibson said.
"There's more contact [with potential rabies carriers] than people realize," Gibson said. "They think their animal isn't actually mixing with the animal population."
Neighborhood cats, strays collectively fed and cared for by residents, are especially at risk, Gibson said. It's a thankless task, she said, but someone who steps up to get rabies shots for neighborhood strays will safeguard their community from the disease.
Elaine Lutz, veterinarian at Piedmont Pets Veterinary Care in Warrenton, said that watching animal behavior is the best way to gauge the risk of rabies.
A healthy skunk wants nothing to do with anyone, Lutz said.
"A rabid skunk is going to come at you," Lutz said.
Lutz said she's seen a case in Fauquier where a skunk came in through a dog door, walked into a kitchen and bit a resident on the leg.
If a dog -- or a person -- has gotten into a fight with a wild animal and shows broken skin, they should get a booster shot immediately, Lutz said.
Even healthy skunks are formidable foes for outdoor pets, she said.
Inquisitive dogs and scrappy cats who go after skunks will get a face full of musk for their trouble, Lutz said.
Many of the animals she's seen in the past several weeks have come to her office sprayed in the face and neck.
"They're sticking their noses where they aren't supposed to be," Lutz said.
In a pinch, a mixture of a cup of hydrogen peroxide, a fourth of a cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of Dawn dish-washing liquid makes for an effective de-skunking mix, she said.
Commercially-available products, like "Skunk-Off," bond chemically with the greasy musk and neutralize its odor. Lutz sells it at her office, and it's proven popular recently, she said.
Rabid or not, skunks call for a basic level of precaution and prevention for owners of outdoor pets, Lutz said.
"There's wildlife in your back yard no matter where you live in Fauquier County," Lutz said. "You need to expect it and respect it. They're not going to go away because you built a house there."