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Polk commissioners hear details on equine rabies cases

COLUMBUS – After two horses were infected with rabies in August at the same farm near Columbus, the health department updated county commissioners this week on what has occurred since the discovery.

The Polk County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday, Sept. 5 and heard from Rutherford Polk McDowell Health Department Director Karen Powell.

Powell said on Aug. 25, the health department was notified by the N.C. State Lab of Public Health that there was a second positive rabies case in the area of Red Fox Road in Columbus. The first case occurred the first week of August.

The two horses were located at Terceira Farm, which was ordered to be quarantined for 45 days by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Aug. 25, following the confirmation of the second case of rabies.

Powell said the horses were unvaccinated at the time. The first horse was an older horse that started exhibiting unusual behavior and the owner put it down, according to Powell. Powell said they sent the head to Raleigh and it was identified as positive for rabies. The second horse exhibited the same behavioral patterns as seen with rabies, according to Powell, so the second horse was put down. The health department sent it off for testing as well, with the same positive results.

“Both horses were exposed to what is called the eastern variant of raccoon rabies,” said Powell. “Neither horse had bites or any kind of open wound that we were able to see, but the second horse was tested a little bit further to pick up on that raccoon rabies variant that’s very common in western North Carolina.”

The horse owner did take steps after the discovery to get the rest of the horses vaccinated. Rabies can be dormant from the time bitten up to about six months, so even if the horses had been bitten, Powell said the horse owner would not have known it as such.

Terceira Farm horses are very gentle and approachable, Powell said, and they found people would often stop at the farm to pet and be around the animals.

“We put that first press release in the newspaper about the first rabies,” said Powell. “We did have several people to come forward that had come in contact during that time period with that first horse. They did get started on prophylaxis immediately. That is a series of rabies shots. They get the first one at the hospital and then they come follow up at the health department for the rest of those shots.”

The health department did not get any response from anyone coming in contact with the second horse.

Powell said horses typically aren’t vaccinated for rabies. But, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) does recommend that anyone who has any type of livestock of value, such as horses or cows, to get them vaccinated, because when they are pastured or if they are in a confined space, it’s easier for them to be exposed to a rabid animal.

Horses and donkeys in particular are very curious when other animals come into their areas and that is how they end up getting exposed.

Powell said she asked if the horses could have given rabies to each other. The answer was no, that they do not typically cross it to each other, and they both probably were bitten.

Powell said the USDA has taken the case over, and they are planning to send a press release to educate the community on what has happened and what people can do.

Powell said probably 5-10 livestock animals a year will test positive for rabies in North Carolina. The state had five this year and five last year.

“So we’re not having any more than normal,” Powell said. “We just happened to have two of them right here.”

Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said the county is holding vaccination clinics. One has already been held and another is planned soon, he said.

Powell said there are signs that an animal is rabid, particularly if a nocturnal animal is seen during the day. She said there was a case in Rutherford County where a raccoon walked into a woman’s garage during the day and attacked her.

She said animals are typically scared and usually won’t come near humans, so if they come to you, there are chances it is rabid.

Anyone who sees an animal demonstrating unusual behavior is urged to call the Polk County Animal Control Office at 828-894-3001.