Somervell County’s animal control officer is warning area residents to be cautious now that the first case of rabies of the year has been confirmed in the county.

Tammy Ray, animal control officer and local rabies control authority for the county and city of Glen Rose, reported that a dead skunk was located last week and tested to determine whether the wild animal had contracted the disease.

“A skunk was found in the county and sent off for testing, which came back positive for rabies,” said Ray, who would not disclose the exact location of where the animal was found.

Now that the first positive case has been confirmed this year, Ray is urging all residents to stay away from all wildlife and pet owners to have their dogs and cats vaccinated against the highly communicable disease.

“I want to tell people to please vaccinate your animals, especially if they’re behind and to get them up to-date,” said Ray. “Also, do not come in to contact with wildlife. Recently, I had some people catch a fox that was hit by a car and they were petting and holding it. Leave the wildlife alone. If it’s coming at you, get away from it and call someone who can properly handle it.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), Somervell County had not yet reported a confirmed rabies case this year. In 2007, a total of 11 positive cases were reported in the county, including one skunk, three foxes, three raccoons, one dog and three cats.

Ray says that while the disease is not a relatively common threat to pets and humans in the area, all rabies cases and animals with odd behavior are treated seriously.

“If I trap a skunk I usually don’t keep them,” said Ray, who humanely disposes of the animals after trapping. “If it looks sick or acts funny and I can trap or shoot it, I will have it sent off for testing. I usually put it down if it’s a carrier of the disease.”

Humans can be infected with the rabies virus if they are bitten by an animal that has the disease, says information provided by DSHS. People can also contract rabies if the saliva from a rabid animal contacts mucous membranes or any open wounds a person might have. Only a series of shots can keep humans from getting the disease.

Ray says signs an animal might have rabies include: Animals that have a change in behavior; wild animals which seem to be friendly or tame; wild animals - coyotes, foxes, bats, skunks and raccoons - which are not usually seen in the daytime; animals that have a hard time walking, eating or drinking; excitement or meanness in animals; and animals that bite or scratch at an old wound until it bleeds.

Local veterinarian, Dr. Mike Jones, says pet owners can take a simple step to help prevent the disease from being contracted by their dogs and cats - have them vaccinated regularly.

“We’ve got a lot of rabies in the area all the time,” said Jones. “Skunks carry it easily and you can stop any skunk in the middle of the day and test it, and more than likely it will have rabies.”

Jones says that the disease is endemic to Texas and typically cases spike during the spring and summer months when wildlife becomes more active.

“It’s nice to remind people again because the disease, it’s always out there,” said Jones. “The state recommends that pets get vaccinated at 12 weeks old, and not later than 16 weeks for both dogs and cats.”

The local veterinarian highly suggests that pets also receive a repeat vaccination a year later.

“The state recognizes a three-year rabies vaccination,” said Jones. “Those first two will set them up for an every three-year vaccination schedule. If you’re not sure of the pet’s vaccination status, certainly have them vaccinated. It’s something pet owners should do once a year to see if they’re eligible or needed because once a year is not a bad thing.”

Local veterinary clinics are offering the vaccination against rabies for pets for less than $15.

Jones says household pets, if they contract rabies, will have a chance for change in demeanor. “They’ll either be overly aggressive or passive. It’s the same for livestock. As the disease progresses they loose the ability to swallow which causes foaming at the mouth.”

According to the DSHS, if a pet is infected with the rabies virus, the way it acts may change. A friendly dog might want to be alone. A shy dog might want attention. Rabid dogs often become mean, roam, make strange noises and attack people and other animals. Rabid animals may drool, and they sometimes swallow stones, sticks, or other things.

Later, as the rabid animal gets even sicker, it might have trouble chewing, swallowing, drinking or walking. It may not be able to close its mouth, and may appear to be choking. The DSHS warns people to never try to clear the throat of an animal with these signs. Anyone who witnesses an animal acting this way, to call the local animal control agency right away.

Ray also says she has seen an increasing number of canine distemper and canine parvovirus (Parvo) in Somervell County.

“I have had people call in saying an animal is acting funny and we’re assuming it’s distemper because it’s got a lot of the same signs (as rabies),” said Ray. “The only way you can determine the disease is to send a sample off for testing.”

The local animal control officer said there were several cases of distemper confirmed last year. “It all goes through a course and I can’t warn people enough about its presence.”

Veterinarians also offer vaccinations against Parvo and distemper, said Ray, adding that puppies should receive a series of injections two to three weeks apart to build up their immunity.

If anyone is suspicious about a strange-acting wild animal or domesticated pet, Ray urges residents to contact her.

“My main concern that I want people to understand is please do not touch them or pick them up,” said Ray. “People think the babies are cute, especially foxes and raccoons. But there has been a case confirmed in the county, so please be wary and do not pick up wildlife and please vaccinate your animals.”

To make a report to Somervell County and city of Glen Rose Animal Control, call 897-3113. Ray asks that callers provide a detailed description of the animal, its behavior and location.