Several weeks ago a pet skunk came in to see me because it just wasn’t acting right. The skunk had been purchased from a breeder and had lived with the owner for five years. Although normally an indoor pet the owner had built an enclosed area in the back yard so that the skunk could be safely outdoors. When the owner first purchased the skunk it had gotten a rabies vaccine and a clean bill of health from a veterinarian but had not been in to see a vet since then.
I walked into the room and saw the owner with several blood soaked paper towels wrapped around his hand. The skunk was in a carrier on the table growling and biting at the bars. I asked him if he was ok and he said yes, the bite was very minor and it happened all the time. Slowly I approached the carrier and the skunk began screaming and biting the sides of the cage.
“Has anyone else been bitten?” I asked.
“Oh, probably my whole family. He’s never been very nice.”
Slowly I bent down to look into the carrier again and the skunk rammed the front snarling and snapping. I felt drops of saliva hitting me in the face. Gently I explained to the owner that I was extremely concerned this skunk was rabid and his entire family and anyone else that had been in contact with the skunk needed to get to a hospital immediately and get rabies post-exposure treatment. The owner was understandably upset and asked me to please look at the skunk close. Politely I refused and told him there was no way I was going to open that carrier nor expose my staff to a possibly rabid animal. After several more minutes of discussion he agreed to allow me to euthanize the skunk and have it tested for rabies but he wasn’t going to go to the hospital.
“What could happen if it is rabies?” the owner asked.
Very sternly I told him, “You’ll die. There is absolutely no treatment for rabies and the only possible outcome is death. You will die. Your family will die. Anyone who has been bitten or exposed to the saliva will die.”
“Is it expensive?”
“If you have insurance it should cover it. If you don’t, yes it can be expensive. But this is literally a matter of life or death. I understand being concerned about medical bills but the alternative is death.”
The owner said he would think about it. I sent the head off for testing and didn’t think anything more about it.
A few days later I got a phone call from the health department telling me that the skunk was positive for rabies. The phone numbers and information the client had given me, which I included on the submission form to the lab, were wrong and the department could not get in touch with the family to tell them they absolutely needed to get to the hospital. I got a little sick to my stomach thinking about the saliva that had gotten on my face and likely into my eyes as well. Luckily I had already had the pre-exposure vaccinations so would just need to get two booster vaccines and would be fine. If the family did not get medical help soon they would die of rabies. I gave the health department all of the information we had on the clients.
A few days later I got word that a man had gone to the hospital saying he had been exposed to a friend’s skunk that was diagnosed with rabies. Luckily that man was able to give the correct information to the hospital and the health department was able to get in touch with the family and they came in and were all treated for rabies exposure. I don’t think they ever really realized how close they came to dying.
There are a few lessons to take home here:
Skunks don’t make good pets. Leave them in the wild where they belong.
Rabies is not an old timey disease that people used to die from. It’s still here and vaccinating against it is still very important.
Give the proper information when you go to the vet! These people probably gave false information because owning a skunk is illegal where they live but vets aren’t interested in turning people in. We desperately needed to contact them to save their lives.
Finally, rabies is nothing to mess with. There is no treatment; there is nothing that can be done when symptoms begin. It is far better to pay for vaccines than it is a funeral.