In case anyone would like a break from all the canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRDC) posts, take a moment to gawk in disbelief (as I did initially) at this human-created debacle:

Skunk purchased from Michigan breeder tests positive for rabies.

How many things are wrong with this, just based on the headline? Ugh.

For the record, breeding and sale of skunks as pets is legal in at least some parts of the US, but it is NOT legal in Ontario. In order to have a captive skunk in Ontario you need to be an authorized wildlife custodian. Animal species native to Ontario cannot be kept as pets. That is especially important when it comes to rabies reservoir species like skunks and raccoons, for reasons aptly demonstrated by this situation.

They don’t know how or when the skunk in question got infected with rabies – a very common refrain. Unfortunately even a lot of dog and cat owners don’t realize the potential for their pets to be exposed to rabies through contact with wildlife, especially bats. Bat bites can be almost impossible to find on a furry pet (sometimes they’re even hard to find on people), so if you don’t see the bat you might not realize there was an exposure. Your pet doesn’t even need to go outside to encounter a bat, because bats regularly get into houses (one way or another!). Keeping your pets vaccinated against rabies is the best way to provide protection against these potentially unseen exposures (and in Ontario, rabies vaccination is legally required for all dogs, cats and ferrets over 3 months of age – that’s 3 months, not 4 months!).

It can take months for signs of rabies to show in an animal after its been infected. Even if the animal looks perfectly healthy, it can still be incubating the virus. (The animal doesn’t become infectious to others until after the virus reaches the brain, but it may still appear normal for some time after this, before it starts to get sick). This is also part of the reason imported dogs from rabies endemic countries remain a risk for at least 6 months after their exposure risk becomes controlled (which is usually when they’re imported). There’s a great little whiteboard video from the Ontario Animal Health Network that explains more about rabies risks in imported dogs (and why just vaccinating them for rabies prior to import doesn’t solve the problem).

While efforts to control an outbreak of raccoon-variant rabies in Ontario since 2015 have pushed case numbers down to just 6 cases in skunks in 2023 (shout out to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry!), they’ve had 17 rabies cases in skunks in Michigan this year, which is a good reminder for anyone who travels (especially with their pet) that the rabies risk can vary considerably by region, even within the US and Canada, and especially internationally in countries where canine-variant rabies circulates.

Also remember that even though there have only been 6 cases of raccoon-variant rabies in Ontario in 2023, we’ve identified 49 cases in bats right across the province, so keep those pets vaccinated, please!