LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas To some people, there's only one thing worse than an ordinary skunk - a rabid one.
Arkansas is seeing an increase in the number of skunks with rabies, officials say. The state usually has about 32 skunks per year that test positive for rabies. So far this year, the state has already reported 35, according to Susan Weinstein, state public health veterinarian.
"We are having very much of an increase this spring," Weinstein said. "It should calm down after spring weather when skunks are not as active and it is no longer mating season."
The average per county is one to three rabid skunks per county per month. But one western Arkansas county alone - Sebastian County - has reported 20 rabid skunks in the past month, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
Weinstein said that the uptick is partially due to a public awareness campaign focusing on the threat of rabid skunks.
Health department officials only tests skunks that are collected or turned in to them. Because of the heightened awareness, more people are turning in captured or dead skunks instead of disposing of them.
Rabid skunks often display erratic behavior such as walking in circles and bumping into things. They also tend not to fear people or other animals.
Weinstein said that the main threat from rabid skunks is to dogs and cats that live outdoors in rural areas and may not be properly vaccinated.
She said that these animals are often vaccinated with over-the-counter drugs that may not be as protective against the disease as vaccinations from licensed veterinarians.
"It's unfortunate that outside animals aren't as valued as inside animals, yet they have a greater exposure to wildlife rabies," Weinstein said. "You may not know if your dog was bitten by a skunk."
Weinstein also fears that children may walk up to a rabid skunk, get bitten and not tell a parent.
In Greenwood, Ark., city officials have placed a quarantine on all domestic animals to prevent exposure to rabid skunks. Dogs and cats must be kept indoors, in a fenced area or on a leash. Stray animals will be picked up, Weinstein said.
Rabid skunks have also been found in other states this spring, including Colorado and Texas, according to news reports.
Weinstein said that rabies occurs in cycles that include peaks and valleys.
"We are in one of those peaks," she said. "It will eventually cycle down because there will be fewer skunks."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)