A state laboratory confirmed case of a horse diagnosed with rabies has put Ravalli County under quarantine for unvaccinated dogs, cats and ferrets for 60 days.
But don’t expect roadblocks at the county line checking for pets. Be prepared for an update early next week.
The Montana Department of Livestock received confirmation Wednesday from the state laboratory that a horse in Ravalli County had tested positive for rabies.
That unusual development — there hasn’t been a horse with rabies in western Montana for at least 40 years — was followed by another oddity when the federal Center for Disease Control’s rabies test came back negative late Friday afternoon.
That news from the CDC came after the state sent out its notification that pets that weren’t current on their rabies vaccine booster in Ravalli County must remain in the county until Oct. 31.
Dr. Tahnee Szymanski of the Montana Department of Livestock said the notification of the CDC’s negative test was a surprise. Since it came late on Friday, there wasn’t an opportunity for the two laboratories to have an extensive conversation about the matter.
Department of Livestock officials decided to leave the quarantine order in place until it could be sorted out as a precaution.
"We're all a little bit perplexed,” she said.
The purpose of the quarantine was to reduce the risk of further spread of the disease in the county in case other exposed animals had not been identified, but Szymanski said the state understands that it’s impossible to enforce.
“It’s not like someone is going to be parked on the main roads and making sure that you don’t have an animal in your vehicle,” Szymanski said.
The case should serve as a good reminder for animal owners to update rabies vaccinations for their pets and livestock.
While it’s unusual for animals, like a horse, to be infected with rabies from a bat — it’s only been documented twice since 1980 in skunks — Szymanski said there are numerous cases of rabies-positive bats documented on the west side of Montana.
Ravalli County had its share this summer.
Ravalli County Public Health director Tiffany Webber said a man was attacked and bit by a rabid bat in July. In that same month, a Bitterroot Valley family found a dead bat in their living room that tested positive for rabies. And another man reported being attacked by a bat, but he wasn’t bitten and the bat escaped.
“This summer there seemed like a lot of suspicious bat activity,” Webber said.
Rabid bats often act aggressively.
“Trust me, you’ll know when one isn't acting right,” Webber said. “I had one that landed on the ground near me. I’ll never forget the sound it was making — the hissing and posturing. I left that area immediately.”
Szymanski said animals like horses infected with rabies can either become aggressive or docile. In this case, the horse’s owners found it lying down and unable to get back up.
As a result of the diagnosis, four people were treated for post-exposure rabies and 15 horses are being monitored for potential exposure.
Rabies is a fatal viral disease that is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. The virus can infect any mammal, including people. It is virtually 100% preventable in domestic animals through the administration of the rabies vaccine.
“While rabies diagnoses involving horses are not common in Montana, this case is a reminder that they can occur, especially in unvaccinated animals,” said Dr. Anna Forseth of the Montana Department of Livestock. “The rabies vaccine is a core vaccine for horses, as defined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Horse owners should work with the veterinarians to ensure that their animals are appropriately vaccinated.”
If someone is bitten by an animal, the wound should be washed immediately with soap and water, a doctor should be consulted and the local public health department notified.