By Dr. John Sangiorgio - DVM
How would you feel about a bunch of Vampires roaming around your neighborhood late at night? That's what I thought. Well what about an adorable family of rabid raccoons? Again, not particularly appealing. But did you know that there is a strong connection between the two? And that connection may explain modern man's irrational fear of both.
Far far away, and many hundreds of years ago, in what was then called Transylvania (we know it as Romania), at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, in the area surrounding a small hamlet called Walachia, there was what appears to be a particularly virulent and widespread outbreak of rabies. Indeed even to this day, this part of the world regularly suffers from severe occurrences of the disease. But the one we're talking about just happened to co-inside with the reign of the extremely tyrannical and blood thirsty Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Count Dracula, The intertwining of these two events is a perfect example how myth and legend are born.
When it comes to rabies everyone knows the Hollywood basics - like aggression, and an aversion to water. We think of dogs foaming at the mouth and stumbling around, people screaming, acting hysterical, and running for their lives. Not much fun at all. In truth, rabies is a complex disorder of the central nervous system, which manifests itself with a wide variety of symptoms. Here are some that are common to both man and beast:
· Extreme behavior changes including agitation, mania, and outbursts of violence
· Excessive grooming (like a vampire?)
· Loss of grooming (like a werewolf?)
· Hydrophobia, or fear of water
· Photophobia, or fear of light and/or extreme light sensitivity
In humans many of these symptoms and a wealth of others become severe and are readily observed in untreated cases (like those poor unfortunate souls in the middle ages). This plays right into the mythology of many well-known supernatural monsters. And modern science has done the research to prove it! Dr Juan Gomez-Alonso of Spain became fascinated by the idea and conducted an exhaustive study that was published in 1998 in the highly respected Journal of Neurology. He discovered some pretty interesting stuff.
For example, people with advanced rabies suffer from severe muscle spasms, not unlike Epileptic seizers, which often causes them to spit up blood. And photophobia is a factor in these spasms, which can be triggered in a variety of ways including bright light that is reflected in water or by mirrors. Crazily enough they can also be caused by intense odors like garlic. Ring any bells? Then there's the fact that more than 25% of men with advanced stage rabies exhibit compulsive biting, and an increased frequency of erections and sexual desire. Put all of this together and boy do you have the makings of a textbook Dracula.
So what does this have to do with us? As far as vampires and werewolves goes - not much. But there has been a significant uptick in the last few years in rabies cases in the five boroughs, with 2010 off to a shocking start. Therefore it is very important to be informed. Let's look at the facts.
The worst problem we have had recently on Staten Island was in 2006 and 2007, with a combined total of sixty-four animals, all of which were raccoons and found predominantly around Clove Lake's Park. In New York City in 2008, nineteen animals tested positive for rabies, four of which were on Staten Island with none in Manhattan. In 2009, twenty-nine animals tested positive, but only one on Staten Island, a raccoon found on Amboy Road, with twelve in Manhattan, again, in the Central Park area. All of the twenty-nine cases last year were of raccoons.
But while there have not yet been any cases on Staten Island, this year is already very different. So far Central Park is the epicenter of the problem, with thirty-nine animals that we know of affected since January 1st. Simply speaking we have had more rabid animals around Central Park so far this year then we have had in any borough in a single year for a long time. There was even a cat that tested positive in the Bronx. But don't worry, ...seriously. We're not in the middle ages any more and this hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed by governmental health departments. So far one federal agency (the USDA), two state agencies, two city agencies, and the Central Park Conservancy are all working together very hard to prevent human exposure and reduce the rate of animal exposure.
So what effect should all of this have on you? How should you protect yourself and your pets? It's really very easy. There's lots of common sense involved.
- Don’t touch or feed wild animals
- Stay away from unknown animals that appear either aggressive or unusually friendly
- Animals that have attacked or are showing odd behavior should be reported to 311 or 911 immediately
- Don’t try to separate fighting animals
- Feed your pets indoors
- Don’t leave your pet outside unattended late at night
- Keep garbage cans tightly covered and pick up litter that might make an attractive midnight snack for raccoons
And most importantly, make sure your pets are up to date with their vaccinations. In this particular case, an ounce of prevention is worth a lot more than a pound of cure!
If a questionable animal bites you, wild or domestic, stay calm and call the City Animal Bite Phone number at 212-676-2483
And just as a side thought: I wouldn’t let a new acquaintance kiss me on the neck - for now....
About Dr. John Sangiorgio
CompleteCare Veterinary Center continues to break new ground. It's New York's premier veterinary practice with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and a team of award-winning professionals, including the 2009 Vet of the Year (Veterinary Medical Association of New York City). Visit www.completecarevet.com