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Animal bites from pets increasing in Montezuma County

The Montezuma County Health Department is recommending people get their pets vaccinated against rabies citing frequency of animal bites in the county. (Adobe Stock image)
Issue raises importance of rabies vaccinations for pets, livestock

Citing an increase in animal bites this year, the Montezuma County Health Department is recommending people vaccinate their pets against rabies.

During a county Board of Health meeting July 5, Montezuma County Health Director Bobbi Lock reported that through June this year, 42 people in the county have been bitten by animals. All the bites occurred at different households and involved domestic animals.

At that rate, the county would exceed its record of 95 animal bites from 2019, Lock said.

In the county, there were 84 animal bites in 2021; 27 in 2020; 95 in 2019; 69 in 2018, and 85 in 2017, according to the health department.

“It is interesting the volume and how frequent it is. We have a lot of animal bites in the county,” Lock said.

She said the bites mostly come from pet dogs, cats and even ferrets. People frequently suffer bites when playing with a pet, breaking up dog fights or being bit through a fence.

A lot of animal bites are accidental, and many come from cats, Lock said.

Animal bites bring the risk of a rabies infection, which can be fatal. Currently, there are no reports of rabies in Montezuma County, Lock said.

According to Colorado statute, counties and cities decide whether rabies vaccinations are required for pets. The city of Cortez requires pets be vaccinated, and the county does not.

The health department tracks all reported animal bites. Reports are relayed from Cortez Animal Control, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, Cortez Police, veterinarians and health clinics that treat bite victims.

When notified, health officials contact the victim and gather information.

The animal is identified and ordered to a 10-day quarantine, whether vaccinated or not. Pet owners can quarantine the animal at home, in a yard or in a shelter.

If the animal shows signs of rabies infection, the bite victim would go through the rabies post-exposure prophylaxis vaccine treatment, which requires a series of four shots and prevents the infection from taking hold.

Once rabies in humans is established, there is no effective treatment, and death usually results.

“It is a fatal but preventable disease,” Lock said.

The rabies PEP vaccine is given based on a number of factors, Lock said. The treatment can cost the patient more than $1,000.

Statewide, 33 animals have tested positive for rabies through June. Of the 33, 24 were suspected of exposing 11 people, three livestock animals and 44 domestic pets to the virus.

Wild animals can carry the deadly rabies virus. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Rabies can be transmitted to a person or animal by a wild animal bite, such as a bat, skunk, fox or raccoon.

That wild card makes it even more important for pet owners to get their animals vaccinated, said Melissa Mathews, county environmental health specialist.

“Domestic cases, we have more control over, but we are also out and about more in the wild,” she said. “You are not with your pet all the time. It may drag a bat into the yard or be exposed to a skunk.”

The rabies vaccine can prevent companion animals from getting rabies from wildlife and possibly exposing an entire family to the disease.

Veterinarian Gerald Koppenhafer, a Montezuma County commissioner and member of the county Board of Health, said that in the past 10 years in Colorado, there has been an increase of rabies infections in horses after a bite from a wild animal, often a skunk. Rabies vaccination for horses is part of the core treatment, he said.

In June, a bat found in a home in Bayfield tested positive for rabies, according to the San Juan Public Health Department.

Although a bite was not reported, the people and pets living in the home have been receiving post-exposure and preventive treatment.

If a bat has been present in a room in which people sleep, it is important that the bat is trapped and tested for rabies. If a bat cannot be tested or there are multiple bats in the home, post-exposure treatment of anyone living in the home is recommended.

Animal bites should be reported to Cortez Animal Control at 970-565-8441, the Montezuma County Health Department at 970-565-3056 or the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office at (970) 565-8454.

Additional information about rabies is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.