Animal health matters: Aftermath of skunk fight hinges on rabies vaccination

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

You’re working on a planter in the middle of a sunny spring day.

All of a sudden, you hear a loud, snarling commotion out back of the machine shed. Racing around the corner, you’re confronted with the sight of a skunk lunging and biting at your old, friendly black lab. There’s no quit to this skunk – biting your dog’s legs, jumping at his neck. Old Duke is dividing his strategy between trying to get away and biting back, to no avail.

You run to grab your 12 gauge, hoping you can get a clean shot off in the melee. But as you round the corner with your weapon, you notice the din has subsided. You’re greeted by old Duke, slow and bloody but still managing a few weak tail wags. Returning to the scene of the fight, you’re surprised to find … nothing. The skunk is gone, apparently having slunk off under the barbed wire fence into the adjacent pasture.

Now what do you do? What should you be worried about?

First, Duke’s wounds. Hopefully they’re just some punctures and scrapes and nothing requiring surgical repair. If so, the old fellow could probably benefit from an aspirin for the pain (never give a dog ibuprofen or acetaminophen).

The circumstances of this domestic animal-wildlife encounter should, however, spur consideration of a much more serious possibility: rabies.

In South Dakota and surrounding states, any skunk encounter is a possible rabies exposure. In nature, the rabies virus maintains itself in the skunk population. Not every skunk harbors the virus, but those with drastic behavioral changes (a normally nocturnal animal being out in the middle of the day, attacking without provocation) are very likely rabid.

To know for sure, you could have killed the skunk and had it tested. This would be more important if the wildlife encounter was more questionable: a nighttime attack or encounter with a different species of critter.

Knowing the skunk was rabid, now we worry about whether Duke was exposed to rabies virus. In a rabid animal, the only way the virus is released from the body is in the saliva. To infect another animal, saliva needs to be introduced into muscle or nerve cells. This almost always means a bite wound. Simply being slobbered on by a rabid animal isn’t a true exposure unless that saliva gets into an existing wound. Having observed the altercation and the dog’s wounds, we know – Duke’s been exposed to rabies.

Rabies exposures sometimes aren’t that obvious. If Duke and the skunk were found simply sniffing each other without an obvious fight, testing the skunk would be more important in sorting things out. Often, the wild animal isn’t available to test and we assume the worst case scenario.

Now that exposure’s been established, we need to worry about whether he will contract rabies himself. The answer to this question is critical. Rabies is fatal in animals that catch it. What’s more, the affected animal can transmit the virus to other animals and humans.

The effective answer to the question is surprisingly simple. It comes down to whether Duke has been vaccinated for rabies. Rabies vaccine is possibly the most effective animal vaccine there is. The number of properly vaccinated animals who have caught rabies is extraordinarily tiny.

If Duke’s been vaccinated for rabies, the next step is simple. You take him in for a booster dose to give his already-primed system an extra leg up in fighting the virus. You’ll need to keep a closer-than-normal eye on him for the next 45 days to watch for that very rare situation where the vaccine didn’t work. Otherwise, Duke’s happy life continues as normal.

The alternative is a heartbreaker. If Duke hasn’t been vaccinated, he will need to be euthanized. The likelihood he’ll contract rabies with such an exposure is very high. (A strict 4-month quarantine to a kennel may be an alternative, but this is exceptional). Adding to the tragedy is the fact that a simple, inexpensive vaccine could have made this story turn out much differently.

So, how does Duke’s story turn out? It’s completely under your control. Is rabies vaccine for your dog something you figured was an unnecessary hassle? Or did you get Duke vaccinated, keeping him up-to-date according to your vet’s recommendations?

In this case, it’s a life or death decision.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.eduor at 605-688-5171.