Facts about Opossums, Coyotes, and Rabies

I just received an email from a Parkwood neighbor asking me to alert residents along East Parkwood of a possible rabid opossum seen this morning around 11 a.m. “It was drooling and foaming at the mouth. It wandered off in the direction of the MARTA station, climbing over fences as it went. I notified the county and they said they would send someone out.”

Here is something that may be surprising to many folks: opossums are extremely rare carriers of rabies. In fact, because of their low body temperature (94-97 degrees F), it is believed that the rabies virus cannot survive and replicate in the opossum. They also appear to be immune or resistant to typical domestic animal diseases of the dog and cat, such as distemper, parvo virus, and feline hepatitis.

In the last 9 years, since 2002, there have been NO cases of rabies in opossums reported by the Centers for Disease Control in the state of Georgia. I am still trying to find out from the GA State Epidemiologist if there have ever been any reported cases for the years prior to 2002 and will let you know. I can give you a list of all the wild animal species that have been reported as being diagnosed with rabies in the state of Georgia between 2002 and 2010. In order of most to least reported: 1) Raccoon, 2) Skunk, 3) Fox, 4) Bat, 5) Bobcat, 6) Coyote, 7) Otter (only 1 case in otter).

Here’s a breakdown by year and species (source: http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/resources/publications/) :

Number of wild animals found to be rabid in the state of Georgia:
2002: 247 raccoons, 59 foxes, 50 skunks, 26 bats, 3 bobcats
2003: 242 raccoons, 68 skunks, 43 foxes, 16 bats, 3 bobcats, 1 coyote
2004: 227 raccoons, 38 skunks, 35 foxes, 19 bats, 5 bobcats, 1 coyote
2005: 156 raccoons, 40 skunks, 23 bats, 16 foxes, 4 bobcats, 2 coyotes
2006: 154 raccoons, 42 skunks, 28 bats, 16 foxes, 1 bobcat, 1 coyote
2007: 193 raccoons, 35 skunks, 18 foxes, 18 bats, 3 bobcats, 1 coyote
2008: 235 raccoons, 62 skunks, 36 foxes, 25 bats, 5 bobcats, 2 coyotes
2009: 226 raccoons, 81 skunks, 45 foxes, 21 bats, 6 bobcats
2010: 208 raccoons, 78 skunks, 40 foxes, 20 bats, 4 bobcats, 1 coyote

The Ga State Epidemiologist who specializes in rabies reporting told me today that from 2005 to the present, the Georgia Public Health Lab tested a total of 54 opossums for rabies, none of which tested positive. All tested either negative or indeterminate, with the indeterminate results being due to insufficient brain sample due to decomposition or because the animal had been shot in the head. These were most likely cases of possible exposure to the opossum by either humans or domestic animals such as pets.

She reminded me that the State of Ga conducts passive surveillance for rabies only, meaning that the Dept. of Health does not go out and collect wild animals to test for rabies. They test only wild animals that have come in contact with humans or domesticated animals and where there was a threat or possibility of rabies transmission to the human or pet. In other words, the numbers for the state of Georgia, and possibly for many other states that report their statistics to the CDC every year, are not a reflection of rabies prevalence in wild populations of animals, but rather a reflection of prevalence in suspected cases of rabies in which there was contact between human and/or domesticated animal and wild animal. The numbers do, however, give you some idea of how likely it is to encounter an opossum with rabies: not very likely at all.

According to the CDC, for example, in 2010 there were only 3 reported cases of rabies in opossums in the U.S., and in 2009 there were also only 3 cases. Every year since 2002, it seems, there are 3-4 cases of rabies reported in a wild opossum somewhere in the U.S., but not from Georgia. There have been one or two from South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York City, and other states. It looks as though your chances of seeing or encountering an opossum with rabies in Georgia is extremely slim. You are more likely to encounter a cat or even a dog with rabies than you are an opossum. The number of rabies cases in dogs and cats in Georgia every year is much higher.

State Epidemiologist Melissa Ivey makes the following recommendations for keeping yourself and your pets safe from rabies. Always keep all pets vaccinated against rabies, both dogs AND cats. There are a lot more cats reported with rabies than dogs, but there are cases of both in Georgia every year. Many people don’t end up vaccinating their cats — you should though! It is against the law to NOT vaccinate your dogs and cats against rabies. Keep your pets, whether they are cats or dogs, inside or contained in enclosures or leashed, so that they cannot roam free to come in contact with wild animals. Of course, wild animals with rabies can approach pets if pets are outdoors, but if pets are not roaming, the chances of transmission plummet. Few people would allow their dogs to face the dangers of roaming free — protect your cats as you would your dogs and keep them inside or away from wildlife.

To keep yourself and your children safe, do not come into contact with wild mammals, as ANY mammal is capable of carrying and transmitting rabies. If anyone notices a wild mammal that is acting strangely they can call their county Environmental Health Office or county Animal Control (contact info found below). If someone is bitten or scratched by a wild mammal, you are directed to call Georgia Poison Control. Georgia Poison Control no longer assists in cases of pets who’ve been in fights with animals or been bitten or scratched — they only deal with human cases now. If your pet has been in a fight with a mammal, you should consult immediately with your veterinarian and you can call Animal Control or the Environmental Health Office about trying to capture the wild animal involved.

If you do see a wild animal you want to keep away from yourself, your children, and your pets, the AWAREONE.ORG website recommends the following actions.

  • Frighten the animal; yell, wave your arms, squirt with hose.
  • Never feed pets outside or leave them out after dark.
  • Never allow children to play outside unattended.
  • Secure trash and compost to eliminate food sources.
  • Proactively educate your neighborhood.

Below is the contact information for the resources mentioned above.

Georgia Poison Center: 1-800-222-1222
(in case of a person bitten by a wild animal)

Georgia Department of Public Health
Melissa Ivey, Epidemiologist specializing in rabies
404-657-2604
(in case of person or pet bitten by wild animal, or for more information about rabies in Georgia)

DeKalb County Board of Environmental Health: 404-294-3700
(in case of person or pet bitten by wild animal, or to report a possibly rabid animal, wild or domestic, in DeKalb County)

DeKalb County Animal Control: 404-294-2996
(to report a possibly rabid dog or cat in DeKalb county)

For more information on rabies in the U.S. and Georgia:
http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/resources/publications/

For more information on coexisting peacefully with urban wildlife in Atlanta:
http://www.awareone.org/

Thanks for reading! — Rebecca Kerimbaev

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