Avoiding wild animals and vaccinating pets best options for prevention.

When a bovine tested positive for rabies in McPherson County in April, it was a reminder that even though some might think it is no longer a problem, rabies is very much an issue and people need to be on guard to prevent an infection.

Many people think that rabies has been eradicated and is no longer in Kansas but that is just not true. Rabies is very much active and is still very much a threat.

The doctors at the Kansas State University Rabies Laboratory who process the animals suspected of having the disease offer two simple suggestions to keep people and pets safe.

"One, avoid wildlife, at least sick wildlife and two, get your pets vaccinated," said Roland Davis, KSU rabies laboratory reference diagnostician.

Rabies seems to have peaks and valleys in some years. April and May tend to be peak times but it can stretch into the fall.

Cases tend to increase when people and pets are out doing more activities in nice weather.

Rabies is a very serious disease. If a human gets rabies, they will die. However, the available treatments of immunoglobulin and vaccines are very effective but they must be started in a very timely manner. Davis said he knew of no cases when a patient was treated in a timely manner that the treatment failed.

Rabies symptoms in humans are hard to diagnose. It might something as simple as a person knowing that something is not right or tingling at the bite site or a sense of foreboding.

Then that person comes back three or four days later and the symptoms have changed drastically, Davis said.

Treatment after a bite is very time critical. Skunks are the most frequent carrier of the disease. If a person is bitten and the animal can be tested within a day, treatment can wait that long. But if animal examination can't be done within a day or the animal was not available, then treatment should start as soon as possible, said Mike Moore, KSU rabies laboratory diagnostician.

"Our rabies lab director likes to say rabies is an urgent matter but not an emergency," Moore said.

If rabies is suspected, it doesn't take long to find out. The suspect animal is put down then the brain tissue is tested, usually in the same day, Moore said.

"If we get it in today, we get it (test results) out today," Moore said.

The length of time it takes for an animal to get rabies after a bite is a matter of length. The virus travels through the body from the bite to the brain. The further away from brain the bite occurs, the longer it takes for the virus to reach the brain.

If a horse was bitten low on the back leg, it would take a much longer time for the virus to reach the brain than if that horse was bitten on the nose or ear.

Unfortunately, the rabies virus is only detectable once it reaches the brain so there no earlier sign of detection available. Bite wounds also heal quickly so it may not be obvious that an animal has been bitten.

Detection of the virus can take from three weeks to four or five months.

Although the most common rabies carrier is skunk, bats are also a reservoir species. Rabies stays in those populations all the time, Moore said.

The virus can be spread to other animals like dogs, cats and even horses and cattle. A bovine in McPherson County tested positive for rabies on April 26.

It is difficult to know if an animal has rabies because the neurological symptoms vary greatly. Symptoms in one animal may not be present in another but both can have rabies. Most of the time, animals that test positive have no signs.

"There are not specific signs for rabies," Moore said. "I know that is confusing but it is the way of the virus."

So far in Kansas in 2013, 26 positive cases of rabies have been recorded. Animals that tested positive: 19 skunks; three bovines; two dogs; one cat; one bat.

Those numbers are about average and close to the numbers for the same time last year, Moore said.

While these numbers reveal the number of positive cases, it is certain that many more exist that are not reported.

"I guarantee there are more out there but we don't see them," Moore said.

The K-State rabies laboratory offers the following tips to help prevent rabies:

n Have your veterinarian vaccinate all dogs, cats, ferrets, horses and valuable livestock against rabies.

n If bitten by an animal, seek medical attention and report the bite to your local public health department or animal control department immediately.

n If your animal is bitten, contact your veterinarian for an appointment for the animal to be examined.

n Do not handle or feed wild animals. Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home.

n If wild animals appear sick or injured, call animal control or an animal rescue agency for assistance.

n Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly.

For additional information contact a local veterinarian, local or state health department or the K-State rabies laboratory at 785-532-4483.

Information is also available at these web sites: www.vet.ksu.edu/rabies or www.cdc.gov