With an infected raccoon in downtown Frederick last week and more confirmed rabid animals this year than in any county in Maryland, Frederick County Health Department officials say it is more important than ever to make sure pets are vaccinated.
The department confirmed through testing that 20 animals have been infected with the deadly disease so far this year in Frederick County. Last year, a total of 35 rabid animals were found.
Although 20 confirmed cases is not an unusually high number, Alicia Evangelista, registered sanitarian with the Frederick County Health Department's Division of Environmental Health, said it is important that pets are vaccinated and people are careful around wild animals.
"The biggest thing that scares me is that people don't consider the potential for rabies," she said. "They need to be alert to their surroundings."
Although Evangelista takes the 20 confirmed infections seriously, she is more concerned about a recent trend of domestic animal bites; some victims do not get contact information and do not know if the animal that bit them was vaccinated.
Ten such bites have been reported to the health department this year.
When this happens, the health department and Animal Control attempt to track down the animal, but in most cases, the victim must get the post-exposure vaccination as a precaution.
In other cases, a resident will witness a fight between a pet and a wild animal. If the wild animal escapes and the pet is not current on vaccinations, the latter must either be put down or put in dual-barrier isolation for six months.
If the pet is vaccinated, then for 45 days the owner keeps it out of contact with other animals and watches it closely for symptoms.
The outcome in either situation is far better if pets have updated rabies vaccinations, Evangelista said.
"But that often isn't the case," she said. "A lot of rabies investigations turn up animals that aren't vaccinated."
Ferrets need a rabies shot every year, and dogs and cats need a shot every three to four years after getting an initial shot that lasts one year.
The health department usually holds four rabies clinics a year to get more animals vaccinated. This year, they held five due to increased demand.
Because the shots cost only $8, pet owners frequently come from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The clinics typically serve about 300 people in a day, although that number has increased recently.
"With the downturn, we noticed that lines became longer," Evangelista said. "As long as the need is there, we will try to fill that need."