When a raccoon staggered back and forth across the street from her Lawrenceville home in broad daylight, Patti Jones knew something wasn't right.
So she wasn't surprised when Pittsburgh Animal Control captured and killed a rabid raccoon on Thursday just a few blocks from her house on Willow Street.
A sample of brain tissue taken from the animal came back positive for rabies, making this the third time the virus has been identified in Allegheny County this year.
Although cases of rabid animals are rare within city limits -- this is the first this year -- Mrs. Jones said she's seen several raccoons exhibiting bizarre behavior in the past few months.
"It is blatant," she said. "They aren't even afraid."
The county Health Department is warning residents to be cautious of raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes and feral cats -- common carriers of the deadly virus.
"We have rabid animals within city limits now and then," said Guillermo Cole, a spokesman for the health department. "We did have two last year among the 18 cases in the county."
There were no cases of rabid animals in Pittsburgh in 2009-10.
Rabies is a neurological virus that is spread through saliva and open wounds, typically in the form of a bite, explains Donald M. Yealy, chairman of emergency medicine at UPMC.
The virus travels through the nervous system to the central nervous system and becomes fatal when it reaches the brain. Left untreated, rabies often leads to death by heart or lung failure.
The likelihood of people contracting the virus is exceedingly rare.
The last human death in the state was in Lycoming County in 1984, which stemmed from contact with an infected bat, according to the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory.
Before that, the last rabies death was in 1949.
Health officials say the decline in human rabies cases is in part because of precautionary measures in the medical field. "We know that while the frequency of human rabies is very rare, it is usually fatal," Dr. Yealy said.
Depending on the location of the wound and its size, the onset of recognizable symptoms, which include seizures, and altered functioning in both humans and animals, varies.
Animals suspected of infecting humans with rabies can be quarantined, but if you wait until common symptoms such as hyper-aggression or very sluggish and lethargic behavior, develop, it could be too late for the infected person, medical experts say.
That's why doctors recommend that anyone who may have been exposed to an animal that is suspected of having rabies immediately see a medical professional to get vaccinated.
"When people have either a known exposure or a potential exposure, we begin a series of injections to help the body fight off the rabies virus," Dr. Yealy said. "We give the immunization because if it becomes entrenched there's no other treatment."
Treatment consists of four sets of injections into muscle tissues over the course of two weeks, which has become far less painful than stomach injections used decades ago and is now similar to a tetanus shot.
The vaccine is highly effective when given quickly after exposure.
Last year two people were treated in Marshall after their cat tested positive for rabies in October. In August, another person was treated after coming into contact with a bat with rabies in Richland.
Medical professionals recommend that individuals who find bats in areas where they sleep take precautions a bit farther.
"For bats, even if you don't recall getting bitten or scratched, you need to come and get evaluated," said Omar Hammad, an attending emergency room physician at Allegheny General Hospital.
The animals, which are some of the most common carriers of rabies, could make contact when a person sleeps.
"You wouldn't feel it and there wouldn't be any mark," Mr. Cole explained.
He said anyone who is bitten by an animal suspected of having rabies should wash the wound with soap and water and go straight to an emergency department. If a pet encounters such an animal, the owner should put on rubber gloves, cleanse the pet's wounds with soap and water and take it to a veterinarian.
Mr. Cole advises anyone who suspects raccoons and other common carriers have rabies, not to feed them and to keep pets up-to-date on vaccines.
"Our advice to people is to not touch or go near these animals that could carry rabies and to make sure your pets stay away as well," Mr. Cole said. "When you see one, or if one comes on your property, don't touch it. If it lingers and appears threatening, call Animal Control and have them deal with it."
The Health Department can be reached at 412-687-2243.
Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or email@example.com. First Published May 16, 2012 12:00 AM