PRINCETON — A chance encounter with a rabid raccoon Sept. 18 left four Princeton dogs quarantined and their owner footing $2,000 in expenses. It also raised the number of confirmed Mercer County rabies cases to 14 so far this year.

That’s enough to put the county in an epidemic, public health officials said this week.

The owner of the dogs asked her identity be withheld because her dogs are still quarantined, but she shared the details of her fight against rabies and the resulting frustration with the Princeton Times this week.

“The raccoon was in my yard Sunday night two weeks ago,” she recalled. “The dogs got in a fight with it and killed it. It bit the L ab mother.”

The pet owner immediately contacted the Mercer County Health Department to come collect the dead animal and test it for rabies. The results came back positive, and the pets’ family realized the ordeal was far from over.

Although all the animals had been vaccinated every two years, no vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing rabies. And, because a vet could not be sure the oldest Labrador was the only one bitten by the raccoon, all four dogs were relegated to solitary confinement for 45 days.

That meant the pet owner had to invest in doghouses to shelter the four indoor dogs outside, along with kennels and fences to confine them, should they develop signs of the virus that takes over the central nervous system of infected mammals. Each pet also got a booster shot of the rabies vaccine, just for good measure.

Each day, the pet owner’s grandson checks out the dogs visually to make sure there are no tell-tale signs of rabies, such as frothing at the mouth or staggering. If all appears well, he tosses a bit of food into their individual pens and watches to see if they take the food and swallow it.

One symptom of rabies is that it paralyzes animals’ throats. An animal unable to swallow correctly could signal trouble, the pet owner said.

If all the dogs behave properly and take the food normally, she said the family proceeds with feeding and watering them.

“We’re doing all of that, and just holding our breath,” she said.

Meanwhile, she questioned why health and wildlife officials aren’t pushing for oral rabies vaccines to be distributed to wild animals.

“Nobody wants to go through what I’ve been through,” she said.

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rabies is a bullet-shaped virus that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. Infected animals carry the virus in their saliva and transmit it to other animals through bites or possibly scratches that come into contact with the virus.

Once rabies invades an animal, it travels to the brain, where it begins to multiply and eventually alters the way the central nervous system functions and the way the animal acts. Staggering, frothing at the mouth and an overall aggressive demeanor are all signs of rabies.

In wild animals — typically raccoons, squirrels, skunks and coyotes —the infected animal may also appear much more tame than normal at first, approaching highly populated areas and wandering into places where wild animals typically flee.

Rabies was rare in West Virginia 30 years ago. Although no culprit has been located, officials suspect hunters transported rabid raccoons into Hardy County, in the belief the additional raccoon population would improve hunting conditions.

In 1977, West Virginia confirmed its first case of raccoon rabies, and the state has been fighting the disease ever since, promoting pet vaccinations and attempting to stem the westward movement of the virus.

While vaccinations all but eliminated rabies among domestic animals, they did nothing to stop the disease in wild animals. In 2001, the Mountain State rolled out a a multimillion-dollar baiting program in an attempt to do just that.

Through a collaborative effort of the USDA, the West Virginia Division of Wildlife, the Bureau of Public Health and others, West Virginia began dropping million of fishy-smelling vaccines shaped like ketchup packets from planes, helicopters and by hand in hopes of luring the wild animals into vaccinating themselves with snacks found in the forest.

The program began on the western front of the rabies-infected areas along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard, particularly West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Once a county or area is deemed rabies-free, officials move the vaccine drop zones eastward and begin tackling rabies in new areas.

In 2006, several West Virginia counties were listed as rabies-free, and the bait zones moved five miles east when the drops began in August this year.

That method explains why Mercer County, despite a high number of rabies cases, has never been a drop site for the oral rabies vaccines, West Virginia Public Health Veterinarian David Henzler said.

The primary goal of the oral vaccine program is to keep the virus from spreading west, then steadily eradicate the disease where it is prevalent, he said.

According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, more than 77,000 of the vaccinated baits were dropped in McDowell County in 2006; 87,945 were dropped in Wyoming County, and 82,131 were dropped in Raleigh County.

So far, only the extreme northwestern corner of Greenbrier County has received any of the oral vaccines, Sanitarian Amanda McMichael reported this week. She said Greenbrier has confirmed six positive cases so far this year.

“Verses what you all have dealt with, I think it’s pretty mild,” she said.

In Summers County, Sanitarian Chad Meador said rabies cases had dropped from a high of eight positive rabies reports to one raccoon so far this year. Like Mercer, Summers County has never received any of the oral vaccines, Meador said.

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Local health officials have speculated that the recent drought stirred potentially rabid animals to enter more populated areas while foraging for food or water. When they do that, they are logically more likely to encounter people or domestic animals.

Henzler said he could not confirm the dry weather as a possible cause behind the recent surge in Mercer County rabies cases, but he said environment plays a key role in the recurrence of rabies.

“Rabies is cyclical,” he said, explaining that its growth depends on weather conditions, the availability of food, the number of vectors, or carriers, in an area and more.

“Rabies is a density-dependent disease,” he said. “If you’ve got more vector species in an area where rabies exists, you’re going to have more cases of rabies.”

He said he suspected there may be areas in Mercer County where residents are intentionally feeding raccoons or other wild animals that carry rabies. Feeding the animals not only provides food for the animals already in any given area; it also attracts new ones, animals that potentially carry rabies.

“You increase your human-pet-wild animal contacts when you do that,” he said.

Other tips he offered to avoid encountering a rabid animal include putting pet food bowls away at night to keep pet leftovers from attracting raccoon or skunks; securing garbage indoors or in outdoor containers that keep raccoons out; and educating children to admire wild animals from afar.

“Tell them it’s OK to look at it from a distance perhaps, but don’t get close,” Henzler said.

In the meantime, he said the Bureau for Public Health, DNR and USDA were looking at vaccine options for Mercer County.

The region is not scheduled for oral vaccine drops in the near future, but with an elevated number of cases and the possibility of cost-sharing present, Henzler said density studies and/or limited drops could be feasible.

Any plans would be preliminary at this point, but Henzler said other areas had experimented with trapping live raccoons and feeding them the vaccines before setting them free. The raccoons, once trapped, could also be tested for rabies, thus allowing officials to euthanize animals that are already ill.

That could be a possibility in Mercer County, he said.

However, he said cooperation would be key in any project. The oral vaccine program is expensive when distributed en masse. Each packet costs more than $1, and that does not include the expense associated with distributing it.

Still, if any government or other organization were willing to contribute part of the funds and/or resources, Henzler said vaccine drops could be possible.

“When I called the USDA, they were definitely aware of the situation. We were both in agreement that if the will is there locally, the science is there, and we can look at some cost sharing, we’ll definitely look at it,” he said.

Henzler said health officials from the state level would also be willing to take part in town hall-style educational forums or discussion groups, if there was interest in the community.

For more information on rabies, visit the Centers for Disease Control website at http://cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies/.

For more on the oral rabies vaccine program, visit the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service site at http://www.aphis.usda.gov.

For other information, contact the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health Surveillance and Disease Control at (304) 558-5358.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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