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County verifies 5 rabies cases last month

Paul Peirce
| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 11:54 p.m.

While Derry Township veterinarian Frank Skacel Jr. admits five verified rabies cases in January in Westmoreland County may be a local record for the winter month, he's not ready to term it an epidemic.

Authorities at the state Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Game Commission who investigate local rabies cases agree.

"I wouldn't term it an epidemic, but it is definitely above normal. And we are recommending that people make sure their pets have up-to-date rabies vaccinations," Skacel said.

"In this particular area (Derry), we may see one or two each year, but we've had at least four -- a fox and three raccoons in the area that I know," said Skacel, of Ridgeview Veterinary Clinic.

The state Department of Agriculture reports that during January Westmoreland had five verified rabies cases involving two grey foxes and three raccoons. Most of the incidents occurred in eastern Westmoreland County, including the Derry area, while another, a fox that attacked a woman and was killed by her neighbor's dog, occurred Jan. 13 in New Kensington.

A resident of Dogwood Acres in Derry Township has his dogs under quarantine because they recently came in contact with a rabid raccoon, officials said.

No humans have been injured in the cases. In the New Kensington case, Lillian Pfiefer reported that a small fox grabbed her pant leg and bit her shoe as she left a neighbor's home.

That fox entered another residence four doors away but was killed by that person's dog as the homeowner, Vicki Kowalski, hid in a closet.

Five rabies incidents may not seem like a lot, but there were no cases recorded in Westmoreland, Allegheny or Indiana counties in all of January 2006.

This year, Allegheny County recorded one rabid raccoon and no incidents were reported in Indiana County in January, according to state records. While the state game commission recorded 505 animal rabies cases statewide in 2006, some 26 of those occurred in Westmoreland; 18 in Allegheny and 11 in Indiana.

Dr. Michael Tulley, a veterinarian at the state Department of Agriculture's regional office in Gibsonia, Allegheny County, which investigates rabies cases that involve contact with humans and domestic animals, said it is difficult to pinpoint a reason for the surge in Westmoreland cases.

"It could just be an odd occurrence. But our best advice is that people should have their domestic animals vaccinated," he said.

Tulley pointed out that state law mandates that cats and dogs three months old and older have rabies vaccinations.

Neither Skacel nor Tulley could say whether the recent spell of warm weather may have been a factor. Although Skacel said that the previous warm weather may have made it easier for the wildlife to move.

Mel Schake, information and education supervisor at the game commission's southwest regional office in Fairfield Township, said he could not term the incidents a trend.

"It just may be a monthly spike in incidents," Schake said.

"We always recommend that if an animal doesn't exhibit wild-like behavior -- retreating upon the sight of humans or running away at first sight -- people should not approach them, and telephone our office," Schake said.

He said people should avoid animals that act strange or look sick.

Raccoon rabies likely was introduced to Western Pennsylvania in the late 1970s when raccoons from Florida were set free in the Appalachians to replenish hunting populations, according to state health officials. Most frequently transmitted to people through the bite of an infected animal, the disease is almost always fatal if left untreated.

An area rabies vaccination clinic is planned from 1 to 3 p.m. March 24 at the Dryridge Volunteer Fire Department at the intersection of White School Road and Route 130 in Unity Township.

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