Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

JOSEPH — An aggressive skunk outside of Joseph tested positive for rabies, prompting a warning from the Wallowa County Health Department early this week.

The first interaction with what was later confirmed a rabid skunk occurred early one morning on Ski Run Road south of Joseph, according to Pat Matthews, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise District biologist.

Matthews said he received a message over the weekend at his office about a couple of incidents.

“Initially, a skunk attacked a lady south of Joseph and grabbed onto her pant leg,” Matthews said.

Luckily, the woman was not bitten, he said.

The following day, a skunk was aggressive with another resident in the same neighborhood. This time the skunk was shot. Matthews said the dead skunk was sent to a lab and tested positive for rabies. So far, he said, he hasn’t had any other reports, but “if one animal got it from somewhere, others could be infected. Rabies causes death fairly rapidly, so the animal that infected the skunk might be dead.”

His best advice is to make sure house pets are vaccinated and to keep a close eye on them and to watch for erratic wildlife behavior, especially in the general vicinity of Ski Run Road and the west moraine of Wallowa Lake.

The health department notified local veterinarians to spread the word to pet owners. Jereld Rice of Enterprise Animal Hospital said cats and dogs aren’t the only animals at risk.

“Any mammal can get rabies,” he said.

Rabies is a virus that affects the nervous system in humans and other mammals. A person may contract rabies through a bite, scratch or
saliva from an infected animal. A potential rabies exposure should never be taken lightly. If untreated, rabies is fatal.

While it is not a state law, Rice said the American Association of Equine Practitioners considers a rabies vaccination a core vaccine for horses. He said these precautions are really about protecting humans.

Even cattle can be vaccinated, but he said it is not a common practice because cattle aren’t generally around a lot of people.

The vaccination focus is primarily on family pets, especially cats.

“There are a lot of unvaccinated cats and they are more likely allowed to roam free than dogs, putting them at greater risk of exposure to a raccoon or a bat,” Rice said.

In Oregon, Rice said, rabid bats are usually the cause of rabies in other animals and people should watch out for wildlife, especially bats, acting strangely.

“It’s a big deal,” Rice said. “We haven’t had rabies diagnosed in Wallowa County for quite some time.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer