February is skunk mating month. If you wonder why that bit of trivia would make the lead in a horse health magazine, then this column is for you!

Skunks are one of the leading carriers of rabies in the United States. At the time this column is being written it’s not even the new year, and near my home we have what has been termed a "mini-epidemic" of rabies. There have been seven cases of skunk rabies diagnosed in my county, along with a bat (another leading wildlife carrier of rabies), and a dog. These are cases where the animals were killed and taken to the University of Kentucky’s Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center for testing and found positive for rabies. In adjacent and nearby counties there have been laboratory diagnoses of five other cases of skunk rabies as well as rabies in five bats, two dogs, and two horses. And those are just the cases that were recognized, the animal euthanized, and the body taken for testing. Friends have told me tales of skunks chasing them in broad daylight, and since skunks are nocturnal animals, that is a sure sign something is wrong.

When was the last time you had a horse slobber on you? Probably the last time you were around your horses. When was the last time you handled a bit covered in horse slobber? When was the last time you had a cut or scrape on your hand and didn’t wear gloves in the barn? Have you ever been nipped or bitten by a horse so hard that it broke the skin?

Most human rabies cases are due to bites from rabid animals, but you can get rabies through exposure to infectious material from a rabid animal—such as saliva—contacting your eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound.

Rabies virus is typically present in the saliva of clinically ill mammals and transmitted by bites. After entering the central nervous system of the next host, the virus causes an acute, progressive encephalomyelitis that is almost always fatal. The incubation period in humans ranges from days to years.

Exposed humans, if treated in time, can survive if they receive prompt medical attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control, two of the eight human rabies cases in 2004 resulted from bat exposures. One of those rabies patients recovered. Rabies was not immediately recognized as the cause of death in the other patient, and organs and a vascular graft from that patient were transplanted into four people, resulting in clinical rabies and death in all of the recipients.

From 16,000-39,000 persons come in contact with potentially rabid animals and receive rabies postexposure prophylaxis each year, according to the CDC.

Rabies is deadly in horses; there is no treatment or cure. Horses with rabies can exhibit various clinical signs—from aggressiveness to neurologic deficits (see #12790 at TheHorse.com for more on rabies).

There are effective rabies vaccines for horses and companion animals. Please vaccinate your horses, dogs, and barn cats. The life you save might be your horse’s—or your own!

You can read more articles about rabies on TheHorse.com. You also can watch a Webinar on equine rabies.

Kudos to Intervet and Fort Dodge

In these tough economic times we’re all feeling the crunch. We want to recognize two companies who are stepping out to be front-and-center in caring for less-fortunate horses here and abroad, despite the economy.

Intervet/Schering-Plough will donate a portion of vaccine sales to vaccinate unwanted horses in U.S. rescues. Fort Dodge Animal Health donated tetanus vaccines for third-world horses.