Veterinarians and state health officials are reporting more cases of rabies this year, especially in North Texas, and speculate that the drought is forcing rabid wild animals seeking water to wander into more populated areas where they are having contact with family pets.
For the first six months of this year, the Texas Department of State Health Services' preliminary data show 591 cases of rabies compared with 387 during the same period last year.
Fifty-one were reported in Denton, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties during the first six months of 2011 compared with 25 in the same period last year, according to state reports. Dallas has reported no rabies cases this year; it had two cases in the first six months of 2010.
"Exposure is what we're concerned about. If your family pet's vaccinations aren't up to date, they could be exposed to wild animals," said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
State officials suspect the drought is a contributing factor in the reporting of rabies, along with an increased skunk population and better public awareness of the disease. Veterinarians also wonder whether owners, because of the hard economic times, are getting pets vaccinated.
Veterinarian James "Bud" Pearce, owner of the Alvarado Veterinary Clinic, said that in the past two months, two clients' pets, a kitten and a dog, tested positive for rabies.
"We have rabies in the skunk population, but to have two pets in the last month or so that have come down with rabies concerns us. It is very rare," Pearce said.
The kitten was acting strangely, bumping into things and seemingly disoriented. It bit one of the doctors in his clinic, but since the veterinarian had received a required booster shot, she has experienced no health problems.
The client bitten by the dog that tested positive for rabies must get a series of shots. Rabies shots for humans cost about $300 per dose, Pearce said. By comparison, it costs $16 to vaccinate a dog or a cat against rabies at the Alvarado clinic.
The client also has her remaining five dogs quarantined for three months so they can be monitored for signs of rabies.
"It gets complicated and expensive," he said.
Pearce said he worries that if people don't vaccinate their animals or have contact with stray dogs, they are putting themselves and their families at a greater risk for rabies, which has no cure and is almost always fatal in humans.
State law says that if an animal has been vaccinated two times in a row for rabies, the owner can wait three years for the next vaccination, he said.
'No one sign'
Rabies affects the nervous systems and brains of humans and other mammals. The virus is typically transmitted through a rabid animal's bite or its saliva getting into an open wound or cut or into the eyes, nose or mouth.
An infected animal can become aggressive or "dumb," though "there is no one sign of rabies," Pearce said.
He also said that an animal can be bitten three months before it shows signs of rabies and that dogs and cats can transmit the virus during the last 10 days of their lives.
Recently, a man and woman living near Rio Vista were bitten by a pit bull mix that tested positive for rabies. The pit bull was trying to get inside the man's house through a window, said Capt. Mike Gilbert with the Johnson County Sheriff's Department. When the man tried fending off the dog with a baseball bat, he was bitten. The dog bit the woman when she was putting it in a vehicle. The dog was euthanized July 6.
Rio Vista Police Chief Perry Curry said there were reports that the dog came from Casa Vista Street. The city notified residents by letter, and about 13 dogs have been voluntarily turned over to the Sheriff's Department, Curry said.
"Rio Vista is a dumping ground for dogs," he said.
The city doesn't require that dogs or cats be vaccinated against rabies and doesn't have an animal control officer, Curry said. He plans to discuss the need for animal registration with the city council next month.
Harry Waldron, practice manager at Pearce's clinic, said that rabies is a huge risk for the human population and that if people don't have their animals vaccinated, they need to get to their veterinarian.
"Rabies is out there, and we're seeing it in pets that are in people's homes and on their laps," he said.