Payson reaped a budget windfall recently with a one-time, $135,000 payment from Gila County to help provide animal control and rabies services.
The $135,000 payment will help to cover the cost of preventing the spread of rabies by rounding up stray dogs and monitoring for infected wildlife, since foxes, bats, skunks and other animals can carry the lethal virus.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the town doesn’t currently have a rabies problem and the payment represents a quick shuffle of funds to make a payment on an overdue promise to the town.
“They made a promise and weren’t able to fulfill the promise the way they made the promise — people died, things happened. So they came back and said it was a promise they’d honor.”
Legally, the county remains responsible for animals and rabies control even in incorporated towns and cities. Towns can adopt their own animal control ordinance and assume responsibility, but the county still plays a key role in controlling outbreaks.
Evans said “we have not had a rabies problem. We do have some significant wildlife issues and significant issues with animal control. It was a function of them offsetting the price we pay as the town of Payson and they would have paid if they’d been funding the program. It came about as a result of some fairly intense negotiations. For reasons lost in obscurity, Payson started doing animal control in the 1990s, but it is a county responsibility.”
Evans said the one-time payment would help offset the town’s animal control costs this year.
Payson’s animal control officer works for the police department and turns all the stray dogs and cats collected over to the Humane Society of Central Arizona, under the terms of a $90,000 annual contract with the town. The county and Star Valley also have contracts with the Humane Society shelter which provides a big chunk of that facility’s budget.
In most communities, rabies carried by dogs poses the biggest problem. Doctors can avert the disease with a series of injections immediately after infection, but the virus has proven almost universally fatal to humans beyond that window for treatment.
However, in Rim Country, wildlife remains a potential reservoir of infection — which makes rabies vaccinations critical for dogs in the region. The main strains of rabies in Arizona wildlife are carried in the big brown bat, gray fox and skunks. However, those strains can also infect bobcats, coyotes, javelina, cats, dogs, horses, cows and other animals.
Each year, the Arizona Department of Health reports that about 30 people are exposed to rabid animals and therefore must receive the vaccine and anti-rabies serum. The last documented rabies death in Arizona took place in 1981, thanks to widespread pet vaccinations and quick treatment with the vaccine.
The Arizona Health Department reported 280 cases of rabies statewide in 2009, the highest tally since 2001. However, last year the number of reported cases fell to 114.
In 2009, the reported cases included one cat and no dogs, but 144 skunks, 69 bats and 51 foxes — with a scattering of cases in bobcats, coyotes, horses, ringtail cats and cows. In 2010, the state reported no cases in dogs or cats. Skunks again led the tally with 66 cases, followed by 36 cases in bats and five cases in foxes — plus two javelina and one coatimundi. Rodents and raccoons play an important role in the transmission of rabies in some areas, but are rarely infected in Arizona.
Most of the cases in the past two years were reported in Santa Cruz, Cochise, Pima and Pinal counties, with a handful of cases in Coconino County near Flagstaff.
Although skunks accounted for the most infections, people tend to give skunks a wide berth and so aren’t exposed to the virus from an infected skunk.
Most of the human exposures in Arizona come from bats, mostly because people handle dying, infected bats they find on the ground.
Cases of rabies infection in humans has declined markedly in the past 50 years in the U.S., which experts credit to the widespread vaccination of dogs and effective animal control efforts to contain occasional outbreaks.
The virus can be transmitted through a bite or infected saliva that comes in contact with an open wound.
The incubation period generally lasts for several weeks as the virus makes its way through muscle tissue to cells of the nervous system. It then moves up the nerves into the brain, where it causes bizarre behavior, fever, paralysis, aggression and then death within several days.