Calling it “one of the most concentrated outbreaks of rabies in decades”, New Mexico State Health Department officials have sanctioned door-to-door site visits to farms and ranches in rural areas of Eddy County in deep Southern New Mexico and are recommending selective livestock vaccinations after 32 animals have tested positive for rabies since January, and at least a dozen people are undergoing treatment for possible exposure to the deadly virus.

So far this year the outbreak is concentrated in and around the Carlsbad area and has been limited to rabid skunks and foxes. But last year at least one horse contracted the disease and concerns were being raised over livestock and domestic animals as the drought forced infected wildlife into more populated areas in search of food and water.

“Starting in December last year, we began fielding calls about skunks that were behaving badly. These animals are generally nocturnal and rarely interact with humans, but reports indicated these skunks were acting aggressively and there were reports of skunks that had bitten pets,” said Dr. Megin Nichols, assistant state public health veterinarian in Santa Fe.

“Since that time we have tested both skunks and fox with positive results and have launched a comprehensive campaign to control what potentially could become a larger problem.”

Nichols confirms that officials believe the drought has contributed to the current outbreak and warns that warmer weather in the coming spring and summer could serve to boost the spread of the virus.

“The potential is there for increased rabies activity in the summer, and also of concern is the upcoming breeding season when we could potentially see greater expansion of the outbreak,” Nichols adds.

While livestock is at risk, so far animals testing positive for rabies has been mostly limited to domestic dogs. State and county health officials have launched an aggressive campaign to encourage rabies vaccinations of pets in Carlsbad and will continue efforts to educate the public on the risks. Of particular concern are children who interact more regularly with pets.

“Concerning livestock, including horse and cattle, we are recommending vaccinations of animals that will be exposed to human contact, such as show animals and 4-H, FFA animals traveling to and from exhibitions,” Nichols says.

Rabies is of greater concern for domestic pet owners, but infection among farm animals is not uncommon. In Western North Carolina, an area troubled by rabies outbreaks, officials say cattle are one of the most common domestic animals to contract the deadly virus, putting cattle producers at an increased risk.

Rabies is not limited to any one particular area. The Southwest, because of dry, hot conditions, is generally a hotspot for outbreaks though. In Texas alone last year, some 1,018 cases of confirmed rabies were recorded. This year 73 cases have been confirmed in Texas so far.

In a report in Transylvania County, N.C., in the year 2000, only cats exceeded cattle in the incidence of rabies cases in domestic animals. The report, prepared by Dr. William Dee Whittier, Extension veterinarian, cattle, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, says a large amount of effort goes into keeping pet owners safe from rabies through vaccination programs and educational efforts, but warns that those who routinely handle cattle are less often reminded of the threat of the disease which is almost always fatal.

“Cattle most often become infected with rabies when they come in contact with infected raccoons, skunks or foxes. Cattle’s curious nature puts them especially at risk when they investigate an animal which is acting strangely in their area [and] rabid animals are prone to bitelivestock on the nose or extremities,” the report indicates.

Because these wildlife species are well adapted to areas where cattle are kept the threat of becoming infected is always present. Cattle in barns or other enclosures are not spared the risk of rabies since infected wildlife commonly frequent cattle housing.