While not to be minimized, neither is the finding of a rabies-positive skunk at Ward a cause for alarm. "But it is a good reminder for pet-owners to keep their pet’s rabies vaccination current," Dr. Susan Weinstein, DVM, state public health veterinarian, said Friday.

Ward Animal Control Officer Sandra Graham said the skunk was trapped at a Ward residence on Dec. 22.

This is the second rabies-positive animal to be found in Lonoke County in 2013, which is out of the ordinary for the area, Weinstein said. "But for some reason [2013] has been a more active year where rabies is concerned in Arkansas … but it’s been quite a while since the last [rabies positive test] in Lonoke County," she said.

Information from the Arkansas Department of Health is that prior to a rabies-positive cat at Cabot in June 2012, the last case was a bat discovered in 2002.

The discovery of the rabies-positive skunk at Ward brings the 2013 statewide total to more than 150, Weinstein said. "[In 2012] there were about 130 cases," she said.

The reason the skunk was tested was because it had been active during the day, and had been inside a yard chasing dogs, Graham said. "Anytime you see a nocturnal animal active during the day is cause to suspect rabies," she said.

The skunk was also exhibiting strange behavior by not shying away from the dogs, Graham said.

"When animals behave strangely, acting differently from what they usually do, it is a reason to be suspicious," she said.

While the owner of the dogs is confident they were not injured by the skunk, and were vaccinated, the dogs still have to be quarantined for 45 days for observation. The quarantine period for non-vaccinated animals is 60 days, Graham said.

The skunk was destroyed; positive testing for rabies requires the brain be examined, Graham said.

Weinstein said pet and livestock owners need to ensure their charges have been vaccinated.

ADH information is that, prior to the skunk at Ward, records show the last rabid skunk in Lonoke County was discovered in 1996.

Changes in Arkansas law in 2010 allow three-year rabies vaccinations, with the appropriate vaccine. "But vaccinations must be administered by a veterinarian," Weinstein said. Not only do vaccinations protect the animal, but also people, she said.

Rabies vaccinations given by owners, using over-the-counter shots, are not considered valid under state law, Weinstein said.

The rabies virus attacks the brain and spinal cord and is a fatal disease. The virus lives in the saliva (spit) and nervous tissues of infected animals and is spread through bites or scratches.

The virus can also be spread if infected saliva touches broken skin, open wounds or the lining of the mouth, eyes or nose. It is most often seen in skunks and bats, though non-vaccinated cats, dogs, ferrets and livestock can also develop rabies.

The first sign of rabies in an animal is usually a change in behavior. Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no reason, or they may lose their fear of people and seem unnaturally friendly. Staggering, convulsions, choking, frothing at the mouth and paralysis are often present.

Many animals have a marked change in voice pitch, such as a muted or off-key tone. An animal usually dies within one week of demonstrating signs of rabies.

Report all animal bites or contact with wild animals to the nearest county health unit. Do not let any animal escape that has possibly exposed someone to rabies. Depending on the species, an animal can be observed or tested for rabies in order to avoid the need for rabies treatment.

For more information, call the Lonoke County Health Unit at 501-843-7561 (Cabot) or 501-676-2268 (Lonoke).