An Ohio County family's pet dog had a run-in with a wild raccoon recently, forcing the dog owner to kill the raccoon.
That raccoon has tested positive for the rabies virus.
As a result, the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department is warning people to avoid contact with raccoons and to report any strange or aggressive behavior when encountering raccoons and other wild animals.
On Monday, Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble said the diseased raccoon recently was found along Castlemen Run Road near Valley Grove. Gamble said the family's dog had been vaccinated against rabies.
"The owner ... called us after he killed the raccoon. He told us his dog had interacted with the raccoon. Because there was domestic exposure to the raccoon, we had it tested and found the raccoon to have rabies," Gamble said.
This is the first laboratory confirmed animal rabies case in Ohio County this year, he noted.
Rabies is a virus capable of infecting warm-blooded animals. Rabies mainly affects the brain. The disease is common in wildlife in North America - notably in bats, skunks, raccoons and foxes. The virus is passed through saliva, most often via a bite from an infected animal.
Gamble said all county health departments in West Virginia, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services, regularly sample test animals for rabies throughout the year.
He reiterated the importance of having livestock and family pets vaccinated.
"In the daytime, if you see (raccoons) tumbling or if they are aggressive toward humans, the animal may have a number of conditions ... distemper or another virus. Sometimes it can be rabies but you can't always tell until it's tested," Gamble said.
Health officials stressed that if left untreated, rabies can be fatal in pets and humans. Gamble said once an animal becomes infected "there's no turning back."
Most exposures occur because people don't consider the risk of rabies. Exposures occur through contact with wildlife or with domestic animals exposed to rabid wildlife. Therefore, avoid raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats and stray or unfamiliar dogs and cats.
In addition, wild species, including wild/domestic crossbreeds, should not be kept as pets.
The health department urges residents not to ground feed wild animals, especially in residential areas. Residents also should control and secure residential garbage waste in and around homes and businesses.
For more information, call the health department at 304-234-3682 or online at at www.ohiocountyhealth.com.