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Spike in animal bites, lack of rabies vaccinations concerns public health officials
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Spike in animal bites, lack of rabies vaccinations concerns public health officials

A spike in animal bites in the beginning of July has prompted public health officials to urge the community to vaccinate their pets against rabies and prevent bad pet behavior.

Over a two-week period from July 4-17, Yellowstone County reported a total of 54 animal bites—36 occurred in the second week alone—according to RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency. That is a concerning increase from the normal numbers of animal bite reports to the agency.

In the first half of 2021, City of Billings Animal Control reported a total of 216 animal bites, that number does not include additional reports from county animal control and local clinics and emergency rooms, but is the bulk of reports. That number is only four times the amount of attacks reported in early July but spans a time period of almost 26 weeks or 13 times longer.

RiverStone Health said their agency received 91 animal bite reports in 2020 and 87 in 2019, making 2021 a standout year for dog bites despite it only being July.

“Last week alone, reports included dogs who bit their owners or others while playing, dogs that were over-excited and jumping when the owner came home from work, and leashed dogs that were not controlled by their owners,” a press release from RiverStone Health said. “Several cat bites were reported last week as well.”

Some bites can require costly medical treatment and emergency room visits, but most concerning to public health officials is the risk of contracting rabies from unvaccinated animals. The bulk of the attacks involved dogs—although some were cats and a few were bats—and about half of the dog bites involved the owner or a family member.

The victims consisted of adults and children and many were forced to seek emergency treatment for their wounds.

Compounding public health risks, is that most of those dogs were not current on their rabies vaccines or had never received one. A bite from an unvaccinated dog can be a dangerous and costly endeavor. Once contracted, the disease is always fatal to animals and humans, and although not common, rabies is discovered in the region almost every year.

“Because rabies is always fatal, animal bite victims may be advised by their doctor to get rabies preventive shots if the biting animal can’t be found and quarantined,” the press release said. “The series of rabies shots is expensive, costing an average of $15,000 for an adult.”

So far this year, rabies has been lab-confirmed in both a skunk and a bat in the county.

Skunks are the most common carriers of the disease according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks communication and education program manager Bob Gibson.

Skunks and raccoons can be aggressive if rabid, but the concern is that the animals will most likely bite pets. Gibson said both of the species live inside Billings’ city limits and almost every year a case of rabies is detected in either species in the area.

“It shows up, it seems like, every year,” Gibson said. “Primarily in skunks.”

Less concerning for FWP is bat bites.

“We do have bats that will bite to defend themselves,” Gibson explained, but he added, “Generally the bats here in this part of Montana are what we call good animals.”

That means they serve a crucial service to the ecosystem by eating pathogen-carrying insects like mosquitoes or pollinating plants. Most bat bites involve instances where the person was trying to catch or trap the bat and the bat defended itself. Avoiding bat bites is as simple as leaving the animals alone, said Gibson.

Another trend FWP is seeing this year is rattlesnakes moving into suburbs to find water and refuge from the dry heat. Gibson isn’t aware of any bites occurring this year from rattlesnakes in the area, but he said they are always a concern for the agency especially in wildlands and on FWP properties.

It’s not likely that a snake will attack a person however. Most often bites occur when people step on or near snakes because they are unaware of their presence.

People just need to be “really careful where you step and watch where your walking”, explained Gibson. The greater risk is to pets. Dogs have a tendency to inspect snakes and sniff around brush which can lead to bites. Controlling pets on trails or in areas where snakes are present is key to preventing bites.

Pet training and control were also cited by RiverStone Health as crucial preventative measures against animal bites. This is especially true after many Americans adopted pets during the pandemic and socialization and being left home alone are newer experiences for some of those animals that may lead to bad behavior and even attacks.

“Take care of your pets, socialize them and train them in basic obedience, follow your veterinarian’s advice, keep pets under control, supervise children around pets and don’t encourage behavior that may result in biting during play,” the press release advised.

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