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Rabies in Montana: Always fatal, 100% preventable

Rabies in Montana: Always fatal, 100% preventable

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A rabid skunk attacked two small puppies in broad daylight last month in Yellowstone County. As a result, the Montana Department of Livestock issued a quarantine until May 15 for all dogs, cats and ferrets in the county that aren’t current on rabies vaccination.

Other consequences of that skunk case include the two puppies being euthanized and two people taking post-exposure rabies vaccines.

In Montana, most animals that test positive for rabies are bats, with skunks second. But any mammal can contract rabies, including humans and livestock. Rabies is a viral disease that is almost always fatal once symptoms appear.

Montana’s state administrative rules require that medical professionals and animal control officers relay reports of animals biting people to the local public health agency, which is RiverStone Health in Yellowstone County.

RiverStone Health receives several dozen animal bite reports annually, with most coming from animal control officers. If members of the public call us first, we take the report, provide information and education to the caller and notify city or county animal control. Those officers will follow up with necessary animal quarantine and observation.

When someone has been bitten by an animal, in addition to the victim getting medical attention for any injury, the animal needs to be located and confined for 10 days for observation.

If the animal can’t be found within 10 days to confirm that it’s negative for rabies, public health recommendations call for the bite victim to begin a series of post-exposure preventive vaccines. The individual’s doctor will determine the best treatment, but usually, this involves four injections given over two weeks. This potentially lifesaving treatment is expensive, costing an average of $15,000 for an adult. Health insurance may cover the cost.

Both Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare emergency departments have post-exposure treatments available 24/7.

While the post-exposure vaccinations for people are pricey, the preventive vaccines recommended for pets are relatively cheap and highly effective at keeping them free of this deadly disease.

Unusual behavior often is the first sign of rabies. In the March Yellowstone County case, the skunk was out in the daytime and oddly aggressive toward the puppies and a person who tried to scare it away before it was killed. Testing at Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Bozeman confirmed on March 16 that skunk was rabid.

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing swelling of the brain and death. There is no cure.  According to the Montana Department of Livestock, rabies is generally transmitted by the saliva of infected animals, such as through bites or scratches. Infection can also occur when saliva comes into contact with open wounds or mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth. Because of strong prevention efforts, rarely does a person in the United States get rabies, even though the virus is in our country.

“While rabies is a 100% preventable disease, more than 59,000 people die from the disease around the world each year,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most deaths result from dog bites in countries where dogs aren’t widely vaccinated and stray populations aren’t controlled.

In fiscal year 2020, the Montana Department of Livestock recorded 19 positive tests for rabies in bats and skunks scattered across 11 counties, including Yellowstone, Rosebud and Big Horn.

To protect your health, make sure your pets’ rabies vaccines are up to date. This is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, an ideal time to consult your veterinarian for vaccination and safety recommendations.

If you or a family member suffers a wild or domestic animal bite or exposure to saliva from a wild animal, report the incident immediately to your local animal control office, which may be part of your police or sheriff’s department.

For more information on rabies, call RiverStone Health at 406-247-3200 or go to the Montana Department of Livestock website at

Marilyn Tapia, leads the RiverStone Health divisions of Environmental Health and Communicable Disease Prevention. She can be reached at 406-256-2770.


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