Georgia: Rabid raccoons push against baiting borders

Georgia: Rabid raccoons push against baiting borders

May 28th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in Georgia

Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton Dr. Daniel Nepp, left, pets Shadow, who is up for adoption, after vaccinating him against rabies with help from veterinary assistant Rachel Hancock at the Catoosa Veterinary Clinic in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., on Tuesday afternoon. Several raccoons in North Georgia have tested positive for rabies in recent months, though the clinic has seen only one case, a domesticated cat, in the last three years.

Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton Dr. Daniel Nepp, left,...

Already this year, rabid raccoons have charged and attacked pet dogs in North Georgia, and that could bring the almost always deadly disease barking at Tennessee's doorstep.

Wild animal vaccine baiting apparently is helping, but some state and county experts question whether the program covers enough territory.

Last year, there were 128 cases of rabies in Tennessee, according to state department of health records. In just 17 North Georgia counties alone, there were 71 positive rabies cases in 2008.

Most of the cases in both states have been wild animals - raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.

Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., veterinarian Daniel Nepp says that is exactly the threat that spurs pet owners to keep their animals' rabies shots up to date.

"We've had two cases of kittens with rabies," he said. "Both in the Chickamauga area. It's not something we see very often, but raccoons are the big carriers."

David Hunter, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department's environmental program manager, said both Tennessee and Georgia drop bait vaccine in some counties of the Tri-state region, but not all.

"That has helped some," he said, noting that development is bringing people closer to what once were rural and forest areas.

Dr. Nepp and North Georgia Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Moorer said the drop zones includes Bradley, Hamilton, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and parts of Polk counties in Tennessee, as well as Whitfield, Catoosa, Dade, Walker, and Chattooga counties in Georgia.

But the animals in Murray, Fannin and Gilmer counties in Georgia or near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line don't know to stop at the border and the county lines, Dr. Nepp said.

Areas farther east and rural regions are showing higher numbers of rabies cases, according to federal and state data.

Jordona Kirby, the rabies wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services program, said the vaccine baiting is designed to follow the Appalachian Ridge area from Maine to Texas and prevent the disease from spreading westward. Portions of Polk County in Tennessee and Fannin and Murray counties in Georgia fall along or just east of that line.

The bait program is aimed directly at raccoons, but if skunks, opossums and foxes eat the bait, they should be vaccinated, too. Bats still have no program aimed at them, but research is ongoing, Ms. Kirby said.

USDA spokeswoman Brienne German said the baiting program's funding rose from $17 million in 2003 to $18.9 million in 2008, but dropped to $18.8 million in the 2009 fiscal year.

States and counties can contribute to the federal baiting program, Ms. Kirby said, but Tennessee and Georgia's baiting areas now are funded solely by federal money.

Red Bank veterinarian Jennifer Kolb, president of the Hamilton County Veterinarian Association, said Chattanooga area veterinarians rarely see rabies cases anymore, "thankfully."

"That's why it's so important that people keep their pets vaccinations up to date," she said.

If a pet is in a scuffle with a rabid animal or is found chewing on a dead animal that tests positive for rabies, the pet must be quarantined for weeks in an isolation area with no contact with humans to be sure it has not contracted the disease.