With Lonoke County being one of the two counties with the most reported rabies cases, officials are calling for caution when encountering any animal. Area animal control officers remind pet-owners that a current rabies vaccination may be the last line of defense, with the first line being avoiding contact with wildlife.

Arkansas Public Health Veterinarian, Susan Weinstein, said the state rate is double the usual number of cases, and while she does not expect to see another 100 cases during the rest of this year, but this number is still very high. "The peak time for rabies cases is March and April, with a smaller rise again in late summer and early fall," she said.

Information from the state Department of Health explains rabies as a deadly viral disease that affects the nervous system of warm-blooded animals, particularly mammals. It is usually spread by an infected animal biting another animal or person.

State records show that more than 100 cases of rabies were reported in Arkansas as of June 24, a number almost double the normal level, and state health and animal science experts attributed to a greater awareness of rabies symptoms in infected animals.

In Arkansas, rabies lives and circulates in wild skunks and bats but any mammal can be infected. That includes domestic pets such as dogs and cats, agricultural animals such as cows and horses, and people.

Cabot animal control officer Mike Wheeler echoed Weinstein’s caution. "Although this is considered the ‘slow’ period for confirmed rabies cases, it is important that people stay focused," he said.

Keeping pets is little different from having a family. "Just like providing proper vaccinations for our kids it is our responsibility as pet owners to protect our pets from this deadly virus. Because if we don’t then who will?" Wheeler said.

Rabies is not only a concern for people who live in the country, Wheeler said. "The rabies virus is carried by animals such as bats, skunks, and raccoons that live in most neighborhoods within the city," he said. It is impossible to remove the threat of every potential rabies-carrier.

"However we can prevent our pets from contracting such a horrific disease with a simple vaccination," Wheeler said.

Tom Troxel, associate head of animal science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture said the incidence of rabies is increasing. For 2013 there was a total of 152 cases; in 2012, there were 131 cases; and 60 cases in 2011; the reason of the outbreak is unknown, he said.

Troxel said that of the 103 cases, 86 are confirmed in skunks. Pulaski and Lonoke counties have seen the most cases - 26 for Pulaski and 13 for Lonoke. Weinstein said publicity about rabies cases in the two counties might be the reason of the high number of reported cases – people are more aware and report more suspicious animals.

Ward animal control officer Sandra Graham said she had an encounter with a skunk that tested positive for rabies; people living in town should not let their guard down. "It was here in town, in a nice subdivision. It had gotten under a fence and was chasing the dogs in the yard. Then it climbed into the dryer vent and that is where Mike [Ables] and I caught it," she said.

"What scares me is the thought of little children getting bitten," Graham said. "One of the first symptoms is that an animal will act friendly, and what child wouldn’t want to pet that friendly animal," she remarked.

"Any ‘friendly’ wild animal should be avoided, but be extremely cautious of any wildlife out in daylight." Graham said. "That’s usually a good sign that something is wrong, either rabies or distemper," she said. While distemper is not same threat as rabies, it could lead to a someone, especially a child, getting bitten.

"If you do get bitten, confine the animal that bit you so it can be tested," Graham said. Without a test to show otherwise, it would be assumed the animal is rabid - meaning the person needs the series of treatments to prevent the disease from developing.

Possible exposure to rabid animals must be taken seriously, Weinstein said. People tend to ignore reporting bat bites, thinking it is not dangerous , she added. If exposed, there is a treatment to prevent rabies but after symptoms appear the disease cannot be treated, she said.

Rabies vaccinations are not only one of the most important for pets, it is also the law, Wheeler said. Every dog and cat in Arkansas must be given either an annual or three-year rabies vaccination, administered by a veterinarian.

To prevent rabies ensure pets are vaccinated by licensed veterinarian, do not rely on over-the-counter rabies vaccines, Troxel said. Avoid contact with wildlife, especially any behaving differently from normal. Skunks and bats are nocturnal; being active during daylight may be a sign of being rabid, he added.

Report suspicious animals to an animal control officer. In Cabot call 843-2021, after hours 843-6526 (police non-emergency); in Ward call 843-7686, after hours 843-6351(police non-emergency); Austin residents should call 843-7856 (police non-emergency).

To view the Rabies 2014 map of learn more about rabies, visit the Arkansas Department of Health Website www.healthy.arkansas.gov.

Some information in this article came from a report by Kezia Nanda, for the Cooperative Extension Service UA division of agriculture