With more people taking part in outdoor activities this time of year comes an increased chance of being bitten or injured by an animal.

With more people taking part in outdoor activities this time of year comes an increased chance of being bitten or injured by an animal.

And one risk of being bitten by animals such as skunks, bats as well as stray dogs and cats is developing rabies.

Cases of human rabies in the United States are not as common as they once were thanks to modern vaccinations for dogs and cats, improve health and animal control practices and a more effective series of anti-rabies shots for people who are bitten.

In 2008, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 64 cases, followed by 65 confirmed cases in 2009 and 63 cases in 2010.

In 2011, the number dropped to 29 and last year, there were 28 confirmed cases.

This year, through June 29, the department reports 23 confirmed cases of rabies in animals.

The majority of the reports, 15 of them, were in skunks. Other animals with rabies confirmed were three bats, one cat, three dogs and one horse.

The majority of the cases have been in southern and southwestern Missouri counties.

No cases have been reported in Phelps or its adjoining counties this year, however, the risk of rabies remains a potential health threat in the state people bitten by a potentially rabid animal should seek medical evaluation immediately.

According to Jodi Waltman, administrator of the Phelps/Maries County Health Department, rabies can be found in any county in Missouri.

"Over the past 10 years, Missouri has averaged more than 50 rabid animals annually, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

"This number includes only those animals tested because they bit either a person or someone's pet. There were undoubtedly many more rabid animals that went undetected," Waltman said. "Most of the animals found to be rabid during this time period were bats and skunks, but the total also includes cats, dogs, cattle, horses and one goat."

What to do if bitten

According Waltman, anyone who has been bitten by an animal, particularly a stray dog or cat or a wild animal, should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes.

People should contact their physician to see if medical care, such as antibiotics or a tetanus booster, is needed and to have a rabies risk assessment made.

If possible, and without further injury, try to capture or confine the biting animal so that it can be quarantined or tested for rabies, depending on the species of the animal.

If the animal is destroyed, avoid damaging the head since the brain is the only specimen that can be tested for the presence of the rabies virus.

People who are bitten should also contact their local health department to seek assistance in obtaining proper disposition of the biting animal.

Rabies is a disease found in mammals and is transmitted primarily through bites. More than 90 percent of reported rabies cases in the U.S. are in wild animals commonly seen in neighborhoods and back yards, like bats and skunks.

Vaccinations are key

Vaccinated pets provide a barrier between those animals and people, according public health officials.

Missouri health officials urge pet owners to visit their veterinarians and update their pets' rabies vaccinations.

"Pet owners need to understand how close the threat of rabies is to their families,: Waltman said. "It's often as close as the skunk that walked through the back yard."

Almost 60 percent of the skunks tested for rabies this year were positive for the disease.
By Missouri statute, when an animal is immunized against rabies, the vaccine must be administered by a licensed veterinarian.

The reason for this, Waltman explained, is that it must be absolutely certain the vaccine was given properly, meaning the proper type of vaccine, dose, route of administration, storage conditions and frequency of boosters are all done correctly.

This attention to detail is important because rabies in humans is essentially a 100 percent fatal disease.

If a child were to be bitten by a neighbor's pet dog, a medical care provider would likely ask if the dog had been vaccinated against rabies.

How the question is answered — where the vaccine was purchased and how long the dog received it —would help the medical care provider determine if the child should receive the anti-rabies series of shots.

Rabies and bats

Special attention should be paid to bites from bats since their small, needle-like teeth could result in a wound that goes unnoticed or is ignored.

Although less than 1 percent of wild bats have rabies, almost all human rabies deaths in the U.S. occur from exposure to rabid bats.

A Missouri man died from rabies in November 2008 because of a bite from an infected bat. The man did not seek medical treatment following the bite, according to the health department.

People who find a bat in their home should consult with their local public health agency or animal control office to determine if testing the bat for rabies is necessary.

Directions for safely capturing a bat that the health department or animal control office has determined needs testing can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, www.cdc.gov/rabies/bats/contact/capture.html.