Sure, critters can be cute – but they may be rabid

Ten-year-old Summer Langston is being treated for rabies after a fox chased her and scratched her leg with its teeth two weeks ago as she played in her Clover, S.C., neighborhood.

In May, eight York County residents were treated for rabies after they handled, fed and allowed a pair of baby foxes they were caring for to lick their faces. One fox was later found to be rabid.

State health experts say such encounters with rabid animals are more common during the summer, when people spend more time outdoors.

And, as suburban areas like those in York County and elsewhere encroach on animal habitats, they say such encounters are increasingly likely.

So they're spreading the word about preventing rabies, a virus in mammals that attacks the nervous system, leading to swelling of the brain and death.

The virus is secreted in the saliva of an infected animal and is usually transmitted by a bite. But it can be transmitted when an infected animal's saliva comes in contact with an open cut on the skin or the eyes, nose and mouth, as happened in May.

Officials from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and York County Animal Control said they advise avoiding wild animals even if they appear to be sick, hurt or orphaned.

Wild animals normally avoid any human activity, said Mike Willis, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“If a wild animal is acting tame or allows a person to pet it, that is a red flag that the animal is sick,” Willis said. “What we have seen is that an animal such as a racoon will come out of the woods during the day and seem to be tame. People will pick it up and pet it, and it turns out to be rabid. The best thing is to stay clear of it.”

Willis said the agency has had an increase in reports of wild animals behaving suspiciously – such as acting friendly to people, or nocturnal animals being out during the day.

Even if a baby wild animal seems to have been orphaned, Willis and other officials advise leaving it alone.

“Orphaned wildlife should not be handled,” said Chris Peninger, director of the York County Animal Shelter.

Peninger said it is rare for wildlife to be orphaned, but if it appears they have been, they should be left alone for 24 hours to allow the parents to return. If the babies remain alone after 24 hours, Peninger said they should be reported to animal control.

The recent cases of rabies exposure in York County are among 13 people so far this year in the county who have had to undergo treatment for rabies prevention. Last year, seven people were treated in York County, the same number as in 2006. In South Carolina, an average of 400 people are treated for rabies each year, according to DHEC, a number that has held steady since 2002.

The fox that bit Summer was the fifth confirmed rabid animal found in York County this year, experts report. In 2007, 16 rabid animals were confirmed in the county, and there were 162 confirmed cases of rabid animals in South Carolina. So far this year, 50 rabid animals have been confirmed in South Carolina.