Take precautions to prevent animal-borne diseases

We are fortunate to live in an area where the phrase “living with wildlife” conjures up bears, bobcats, coyotes, deer and elk.

While these certainly can affect one’s health – or that of your small pet – the health department deals primarily with the smaller variety of wildlife. These include mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and slightly larger ones such as bats and rodents.

Although much smaller, they deserve as much respect in terms of the power they can pack to harm us as well as their intricate roles in nature and sustaining our beautiful environment.

This year, there already have been three confirmed cases of hantavirus in Colorado. San Juan Basin Health Department has already logged numerous calls this spring about possible rabies exposures. While rabies vaccinations are not the painful series of shots in the stomach many still remember, the five shots still are not pleasant and quite costly. It is far preferable to just have your pet vaccinated against rabies and be cautious around wildlife, especially an animal lying on the ground appearing sick or dead. Front Range communities have seen increasing numbers of skunks with rabies. In fact, this year, there already have been 11 skunks that tested positive for rabies.

“Although the Southwest region has not had any skunks testing positive, we do continue active surveillance to better detect when rabies in skunks moves into the area and alert the public,” said Bari Wagner, San Juan Basin Health Department’s regional epidemiologist.

She cautions that “it’s important for everyone to be aware of all wildlife that can carry rabies, be observant of animal behavior and follow general precautions including not feeding or handling wild animals. And keep your pets and farm animals vaccinated.”

Bats are by far the most common carrier of rabies in our area. During the last two years, Wagner has recommended that 11 people get the preventive rabies vaccine. After interviewing people who have been or may have been exposed (people may wake up with a bat in their room and don’t know if they’ve been bitten), she can recommend appropriate measures.

If the person has the animal, Wagner sends it to the state lab for testing. Out of 20 animals sent throughout the past two years, one has tested positive. This prevents many people from having to get the rabies shots. There are safety guidelines for capturing a bat to have it tested (visit www.cdphe.state.co.us/dc/zoonosis/rabies/). To report an encounter with a bat or other suspect animal, please call Wagner at 335-2028.

To prevent other animal-borne diseases such as hantavirus and West Nile, San Juan Basin Health Department recommends everyone help control the presence of rodents and mosquitoes around their home. When heading outdoors, particularly when and where wild animals and insects are active, wear insect repellant and appropriate clothing and protect your pets from fleas and ticks. Remember not to handle or feed wild animals, especially those that appear sick; and do not pick up dead animals or animal waste. Also, talk with your children about these precautions.

For more information about living with our smaller wildlife, visit: sjbhd.org/en/common-disease-in-our-region.

Jane Looney is the communications director for the San Juan Basin Health Department.