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What a stinking mess! Pet skunks spark rabies scare in Michigan

Michigan officials have warned about rabies in pet skunks  (Tom Brakefield/Getty Images)
Michigan officials have warned about rabies in pet skunks (Tom Brakefield/Getty Images)

Michigan health officials have issued a warning to residents that those who have bought pet skunks in the past six months could be exposed to rabies.

The Michigan departments of Health and Human Service, Natural Resources and Agriculture and Rural Development announced on Wednesday that they are working with local health departments to alert those who could be at risk, they said in a news release.

If a resident has bought a skunk from Countryside Feather Farm Rose’s Skunks in Attica or through a Chesterfield township or New Baltimore seller connected to Rose’s Skunks, that they could have been exposed to the viral disease, the officials said.

The warning has been sent out after a skunk purchased from the breeder tested positive for rabies on 29 November.

It is unknown how the skunk contracted the disease, but a preliminary investigation by Macomb County Animal Control suspects that rehabilitated wild skunks could have co-mingled with bred and captive skunks at the New Baltimore location.

Officials have been trying to track down the buyers based on the facilities’ records and pet permits, but the public notification has now been sent out to try and warn anyone else, as rabies can be fatal to humans and other animals.

It is legal for Michigan residents to own pet skunks as long as they have been bred in captivity only through a permit issued by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

To be on the safe side, those who got their skunk vaccinated for rabies could still be at risk and should seek advice because the rabies vaccine is not 100 per cent proven to be effective.

“If you have purchased one of these skunks from these facilities in the last six months, we are urging you to contact your veterinarian to have the animal examined. If you have interacted with a skunk from these facilities, we recommend you contact your health care provider or local health department about possible rabies exposure,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan, in the news release.

“It can take months for rabies to show up in skunks. If the skunk you purchased is showing signs of illness or has died, please contact your veterinarian and health care provider immediately, as you may be at risk for rabies and require treatment.”

Post-exposure treatment will be available to people who have been potentially exposed, although if the pet skunk tests negative, it will not be necessary.

People can surrender their skunks to their local animal control agency to submit to MDHHS for testing.

Rabies can incubate in skunks for several months and can be transmitted through, bite, scratch or saliva.

Skunks and bats are thought to be the most common carriers of rabies in Michigan, although any mammal can be infected with rabies.

Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system, which ultimately causes disease in the brain and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms vary between animals and humans, but people may experience fever, headache, general weakness and discomfort and signs of brain dysfunction. Once symptoms appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, according to the Michigan health experts.

State officials are asking all residents to avoid contact with wild animals; if a wild animal appears sick, they should report it to the Department of Natural Resources and vaccinate their animals against rabies.

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, they ask you to seek immediate medical attention; the same goes for any pet, even if they are vaccinated.