Public health authorities are warning of a potential uptick in rabies cases in Coconino County this spring and summer.
This announcement follows a drastic rise in rabies among wildlife populations in the county in 2018, a year that saw the number of reported cases jump from two in 2016 and three in 2017 to a total of 35 reports of the virus in 2018, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
A wet winter and warming weather conditions can contribute to a rise, according to Anne Justice-Allen, wildlife veterinarian for Arizona Game and Fish -- especially in Flagstaff, where animals like foxes and skunks have plenty of room and little disturbance from humans compared to larger metropolitan areas.
"We seem to see an uptick this time of year because animals that were hibernating or less active are up and stirring around again; we have mating activity, we also have juveniles coming out on the landscape who are more likely to be curious about things. It’s a lot of different things coming together that make rabies exposure for the public and pets more likely," Justice-Allen said.
Because so many people are out and about due to the warmer weather, the risk of contact increases this time of year, according to Randy Phillips, manager of environmental services for the Coconino County Health Services District.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that wild animals accounted for 92.4% of reported cases of rabies in the United States in 2015. Bats were the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species, followed by raccoons, skunks and foxes.
Cases of the virus -- which is transmitted by a bite or contact with saliva of an infected animal -- in northern Arizona are most prevalent in foxes, bats and skunks, much like the rest of the state.
" was a particularly bad year for rabies, and we do expect an increase in reporting this year," Phillips said.
A rabid fox attack in December -- in which the animal jumped into the bed of a pickup truck and attacked the car's owner in Flagstaff's Fox Glenn neighborhood -- was followed not long after by a similar incident on Mars Hill.
The reason for rises in rabies cases isn't always entirely clear, Justice-Allen said, but a cyclical pattern and data suggest that spikes of the virus come about every five to 10 years.
In Arizona, approximately 30 people are exposed to rabid animals every year, according to ADHS. People who are exposed must get the vaccine and anti-rabies serum treatment to prevent infection.
A bite from a rabid animal is very rarely fatal to humans. According to the CDC, in this century, the number of human deaths in the United States attributed to rabies has declined from 100 or more each year to an average of 2 or 3 per year.
Unvaccinated pets are not so lucky, however. The disease attacks brain and spinal chord and once signs appear, almost all infected animals die within five days.
The rabies vaccine is mandatory for all pets in Coconino County and enforced by agencies including Animal Control, Phillips said. But even vaccinated pets must be brought to a vet for treatment and the incident should be reported.
"And we encourage everyone to be aware of their surroundings and take all animals out on a leash," Phillips said.
Rabid animals are recognizable by their aggressive behavior, lack of fear of humans and their activity at unusual hours.
"They might run around and try and bite, or they'll be active during the day when they're normally active at night. Like skunks and foxes are normally active at night, or they might be having several seizures," Justice-Allen said. "Bats with rabies will be found on the ground, so it's important that people don't touch bats with their bare hands."
Since the beginning of 2019, Coconino County has had seven reported cases of the virus, attributed to six foxes and one skunk.
People who see or come into contact with rabid animals should call Coconino County Animal Management at (928) 679-8756 and/or ADHS at 602-364-3676. If attacked or bitten, call 911.