PHOENIX – The unusually mild winter is fueling a rabies outbreak among skunks in southern Arizona, and one expert said it’s only a matter of time before the problem begins in northern Arizona.
“Skunks are active during the summer and fall, and then they go into winter dens,” said Tad Theimer, a Northern Arizona University associate professor in biology. “During a warm winter, more skunks survive. They also move around a lot more and spread rabies.”
Thirteen rabid skunks have been found in Pima and Santa Cruz counties so far this year, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Only 17 rabid skunks were found in those counties in all of 2013.
“That’s a huge leap,” said Laura Oxley, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Pima County officials last week issued an alert for hikers who came near a rabid skunk at a trailhead. While skunks are nocturnal, this one was out at noontime.
“The skunk plopped down in the middle of the sidewalk, unafraid of passers-by,” said Michael Fink, an epidemiologist with the Arizona Department of Health Services.
If a skunk believed to have rabies bites or scratches someone, they are at risk for infection, Fink said. The treatment is a series of four shots over 21 days.
Theimer said rabies outbreaks among skunks also are driven by the creatures preferring developed areas where they can pinch pet food and, an even bigger draw, bird feed.
“If you ask a skunk, they will always choose the city,” he said.
Congregating around bird feeders and other urban food sources – and also fighting over the food and mates – allows skunks to spread the disease, Theimer said.
Where’s there is food, the creatures find a home. Skunks choose to establish dens in home foundations because they are warm and protect against the elements.
Raised homes popular in Flagstaff are like an “apartment complex for skunks,” Theimer said.
“They all hang out together and increase the likelihood they’ll infect each other,” he said.
To keep away their cohabitors Flagstaff residents can fill their foundations with concrete or block openings with wire mesh and reinforce it with rocks to prevent the animals from burrowing underneath, Theimer said.
A small fence around bird feeders helps prevent late night skunk dinner parties, and other pet foods shouldn’t be left outside after sunset, he added.
Fink said Arizona will have to let the epidemic run its course.
“I expect this to be a problem for at least a few months,” he said.
• Rabies can be prevented by vaccinating dogs, cats and other animals but can’t be cured.
• Every year, approximately 30 people are exposed to rabid animals in Arizona.
• The last documented human rabies death in Arizona was in 1981.
• Animals infected with rabies exhibit aggressiveness, make unusual noises, or twitch. They are also unafraid of human contact and may attack.