Skunks soon will emerge from their winter shelters, and state officials are urging Missourians to exercise caution due to the danger of rabies.
Skunks and bats are the two primary carriers of the rabies virus in Missouri. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found 12 rabid skunks and 16 rabid bats in 2012. The confirmed cases were scattered across 14 counties from northwest Missouri to the Ozarks.
Missouri’s only common skunk is the striped Mephitis mephitis, which spends the winter holed up in sheltered spots such as rock piles, barns and outbuildings.
Mating season begins in late February and continues through March.
Males can cover 5 miles in a night of searching for food and mates, so it isn’t surprising that human encounters with skunks increase at this time of year.
Striped skunks aren’t big, measuring only about 12 inches not counting their fluffy tails. A 10-pounder is a jumbo skunk. They normally are not aggressive, and leave when they encounter people.
However, skunks can lose their natural fear of humans if they learn to associate people with easy meals, as sometimes happens around campgrounds. In such situations, they may become alarmingly fearless.
What skunks lack in heft, they make up in aroma. One well-placed spray from a skunk’s musk glands can leave a human or a would-be predator gagging and gasping for breath. But their propensity for rabies is the real danger.
Rabid skunks may display abnormal behavior, such as being active in the daytime, aggressiveness, seizures, stumbling and vocalizing.
However, they can transmit the disease before symptoms appear.
The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva, and exposure normally occurs as the result of a bite. Less commonly, the virus can enter the body through an open wound or mucous membranes.
It takes three to six weeks from the time of exposure for symptoms to appear, but the incubation period can be much longer.
There is no treatment for rabies once symptoms appear. Treatment must begin within days of exposure if the biting animal is known to be rabid or cannot be tested. In the past, rabies treatment consisted of multiple, painful injections in the abdomen, but this has been replaced by simple injections into the arm.
Fortunately, human cases of rabies are rare, and the last recorded case in Missouri occurred in 2008. The last case of human rabies in Missouri before that was in 1959.