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Rabid horse bitten by skunk

Staff writer

Kansas State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory technician Rollan Davis completed tests last week confirming that a rabid horse from Marion County contracted the disease from an infected skunk.

Davis said he ran a test that was able to determine the origin of the rabies virus due to unique aspects of it by specie and region.

“Most rabies cases are carried by skunks or raccoons; bats can also carry the virus,” he said. “But there is no doubt this case was caused by a rabid skunk.”

In March, worried owners of a horse in Marion County that was acting erratically called veterinarian Brendan Kraus of Spur Ridge Veterinary Hospital in Marion for help.

Kraus went to the farm to evaluate the horse, which seemed to be depressed and in pain. It kicked and laid down a lot. He made the decision to euthanize the horse, suspecting a rabies virus infection. He removed the horse’s brain and sent it to Manhattan for analysis at K-State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Testing confirmed the horse was rabid. Kraus said that it was an unusual case but not alarming.

“This is something that might happen once in every five years,” he said. “This was the first case I have dealt with, and it is a rare occurrence; but it does happen and I imagine every office has had a case at some point.”

The only way for an animal to get rabies is for an infected animal to bite it.

“I have heard that there are more skunks around this year than usual, maybe because of the mild winter we had,”
Kraus said. “But I don’t know if they are rabid or not. People should stay away from any animal acting strangely.”

Kraus said he had never heard of a rabid horse or cow passing the disease on through biting. However, the owners of the horse in question did get shots as a precaution.

“Horses, cattle, and large animals don’t respond to the rabies virus in the same ways that small wild animals or dogs and cats do,” he said. “Mostly they just act as if they are in pain or depressed. Some could be hyper-excited, but mostly it shows in the form of depression.”

Kraus advised horse owners to vaccinate their horses for rabies with a once-yearly shot. He said cattle could also be susceptible to rabies but it was not economically viable to vaccinate whole herds of cattle.

Rabies is a fatal disease, always killing the affected host. Sometimes the symptoms might not show up for weeks and months after the original bite, however.

“As with any neurological system disease, the only way to diagnose the problem is to check the brain,” Kraus said. “That can only be done post-mortem.”

Davis said their university lab confirmed four cases of rabies in horses so far this year in Kansas.

“What we get here is just the tip of the ice-berg,” Davis said. “Because horses are fed every day, their owners are more apt to notice when they are not acting right, but there are a lot of animals that go undiagnosed that we never hear about.”

Davis said the lab was currently testing three potential cases of rabies in cats, and recently confirmed cases in a coyote and a bat, in addition to the four horse cases, one of which was from Marion County.

Last modified June 13, 2012

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