Foxes in Cave Junction test positive for rabies

State wildlife biologists will step up their search for rabies among Southern Oregon wildlife after two more dead gray foxes recently found near Cave Junction tested positive for the disease.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now plans to test every dead fox and raccoon found in Josephine County in the hopes of shedding more light on how this strain of bat rabies continues to pummel wildlife in and around Cave Junction.

Seven foxes and one pet goat have died from rabies in that area, and one gray fox found dead near Merlin tested positive. They were the first foxes to die from rabies in Oregon since a similar outbreak in the same area a decade ago.

"Cave Junction tends to have it down there, and we're going to try to figure out why that is," said Colin Gillin, ODFW's state veterinarian in Corvallis.

Biologists are hoping to discover whether foxes are somehow contracting the disease by ingesting infected bats or whether foxes are passing it among family groups, said Mark Vargas, ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

To solve the puzzle, Vargas said he wants rabies tests on even road-kill foxes and raccoons in Josephine County, as well as any animals acting peculiarly in Jackson County.

Since the discovery of rabies in January 2010 in Cave Junction, ODFW has tested eight animals in Jackson County. All the tests were negative, Vargas said. One rabbit found dead in May near Trail, however, tested positive.

"We don't know exactly if we're seeing a higher incidence of rabies in the population or if it's because we're testing more animals," Vargas said. "We don't know if it's bat-to-fox (transmission), or fox-to-fox. That's why we're going to test as many of those as we can get our hands on."

Rabies, a viral disease affecting mammals, attacks the nervous system. The rabies strain found in the local foxes comes from bats. Other strains of rabies, such as skunk and raccoon, have not been detected in Oregon.

Rabies symptoms in wildlife include lethargy, walking in circles, loss of muscular coordination, convulsions, irritability or aggressiveness, disorientation, excessive drooling, and showing no fear of humans.

Meanwhile, the latest incidents have Josephine County health officials warning pet and horse owners to consider vaccinations for their animals.

All dogs must be vaccinated for rabies in Oregon, but animals such as horses and cats are not required to be vaccinated, though they can be.

One bat found in May near Trail tested positive for rabies, but no rabid foxes have been reported in Jackson County.

All of the tests were done at Oregon State University. They cost $65 each, and ODFW has paid for them, Gillin said.

Several strains of rabies, also known as "source types," are found in the United States, including strains found in skunks, foxes and bats.

Over the past two years, a strain of terrestrial rabies has been found in animals such as foxes and raccoons in Northern California, but not in Oregon. That terrestrial strain, however, could creep its way into Southern Oregon, Vargas said.

"If that happens, then rabies will be spread faster," he said.

Anyone witnessing animals exhibiting strange behaviors are urged to call ODFW at 541-826-8774.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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