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Photo courtesy of Becky Johnson

The above raccoon, which was found on Moss Drive on June 4, tested positive for rabies. The McDuffie County Health Department sent an information letter to all residences in a two-mile radius of the finding on June 12.

The McDuffie County Health Department found a positive testing of rabies in the Moss Drive area on June 10. On June 12, the department sent a letter about a June 4 incident at a residence in the area where an occupant of the residence found an infected animal. All residences in a two mile radius of the Moss Drive location were sent the notification.

Becky Johnson, 39, Thomson said her daughter had let the family dogs out at night but then noticed something else roamed outside. She then told her mother that a raccoon was in a tree, staring. The dogs barked at it.

“He wasn’t vicious or screeching. He wouldn’t move. He was making a whimpering noise, and I thought it was strange,” Johnson said of the raccoon.

Johnson said she called the dogs to her. She said she didn’t see any physical scratches or blood on them. Johnson called the McDuffie County Sheriff’s Office, then was rerouted to the Georgia State Patrol, who rerouted her again to the Department of Natural Resources(DNR), where she had to leave a message.

“The whole time, he didn’t budge,” she said.

Johnson decided to kill the raccoon. She said she shot it two times with a rifle, then put it in a black yard bag and tied it up. The next morning, DNR came, picked up the animal, and sent it to the local health department for testing.

Once the raccoon tested positive for rabies, Johnson had another concern. If her dogs test positive, they could get put down.

David Lee, the East Central Health District environmental health director, said that the virus incubates for up to five days. If an animal is the biter with a possible infection, Lee said that the animal must be kept in quarantine for 10 days. If the animal has received a bite and it has current shots, it must have 45 days of observation and have their booster shots readministered. If not current or if the animal never had shots, that time extends to up to six months.

Johnson’s dogs didn’t have all their shots updated at the time of the incident. After hearing the positive testing, she said she went and got their shots updated and had them get their bloodwork done. The ordeal has cost her $280 so far. Right now, Johnson has both dogs in quarantine, keeping them both from humans and other animals. The tests could take up to two weeks.

If an infected animal bites or scratches a pet, Tim Mosley, deputy district environmental health director for the McDuffie County Health Department, said that the pet must be euthanized.  The health department considers an animal rabid once an animal tests positive.  

Once the virus reaches the brain, Lee said it can pass to other animals. It enters a wound by saliva, then goes through the muscle, to the nerves, to the central spinal column, and lastly to the brain. Once it hits the brain, Lee said the infected mammal has up to five days before they die. If by chance they survive, Lee said brain swelling would ensure brain damage. Any mammal can carry rabies.  Mosley said that a person has a safe window of up to two to three weeks to get treatment for rabies. However, Lee also said no one has died of it in Georgia for the last few years and out of all bites, he said the number of rabies positive ones are small.

“Rabies are out there but normally, [infected animals] don’t get in contact with domestic animals and humans,” Lee said. “Wild animals normally stay away from humans. If they come out and act aggressive, then it’s probably that they are positive.”

For cases of bites or scratches, from wild animals or otherwise, Lee said residents should contact the health department because they typically handle such cases.

Johnson emphasized the importance of keeping pet shots up to date. With her, she said time escaped her, that the shots hadn’t been high on her priority list.  She also said she wasn’t expecting the rabies incident to happen.

“If it’s in my yard, it could happen in any yard,” she said. “It’s important to vaccinate your dogs.”

Mosley agreed. He said that residents should assume that rabies is all around, due to the virus being endemic to Georgia. Last year,  according to Mosley, McDuffie County had one positive case for rabies. This was the number of cases annually since 2016. In 2014 and 2015, that number was two per year.

The virus, he said, goes in cycles. Some years have lower cases than others, but he maintained that pet owners should be vigilant regardless. He said a $10 rabies shot every year could keep owner from worrying about their pets dying due to the disease.

“It saves a lot of heartache later,” he said.

Johnson describes the Boxers as having a different personality. She said they almost listen to you, tilting their heads when hearing someone speak to them. Sadie, one of the dogs, was a rescue. Johnson said that when she first got her, the dog had separation anxiety and continues to act like a much smaller dog, doing things like sitting on your lap when you’re in a recliner. Johnson said both dogs express happiness when they see you. She’s hoping to avoid euthanizing her pets.

“That would kill my whole family,” she said.

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