Experts: Be Wary Around Wildlife

Many diseases can be transferred to humans

(From the Mansfield News Journal, Sunday January 4th, 1998)


COLUMBUS - - People should use caution around wild animals because many of their diseases can be transferred to humans, said Teresa Morishita, Ohio State University Extension veterinarian and assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventative Medicine.

Rabies, for example, infected 13 Ohio animals in 1996 - nine bats, one fox, one skunk, one raccoon and one cat - and seven people were treated for potential exposure. From 1990 to 1996, 80 animals were diagnosed with rabies in the state; 64 of them were bats. "It's important for children not to play with wild animals," Morishita said. "Bats, especially, should not be picked up or played with."

Cases of raccoon rabies have been on the rise in recent years. In 1995, about half of the wildlife rabies cases reported in the United States were associated with raccoons. However, disease control methods and natural barriers had kept raccoon rabies out of Ohio until May 1996 when a rabid raccoon was found in the northeastern part of the state.

Animals infected with rabies usually act strangely or out of character. For example, bats, skunks and raccoons that are typically active at night may become active during the day, Morishita said. Humans can get rabies if they are bitten by an infected animal or have contact with a rabid animal's saliva in wounds, the eyes, nose or mouth. Live or dead wild animals should not be touched and pets should be vaccinated against the disease. Wild animals also should not be kept as pets. if a person fears they have been exposed to a rabid animal they should call a doctor immediately. Once symptoms such as headache or fever appear, rabies can be fatal, Morishita said, while treatment is effective if started before symptoms appear.

Another wildlife problem comes from a small parasitic raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, found in the intestines of raccoons. The roundworm does not harm the raccoons that carry it, but the eggs of the parasite are passed in raccoon feces where they can survive in the environment.

If a person swallows the eggs, especially small children who frequently put unwashed hands in their mouths, the larva will hatch in the intestines and travel to the liver, eyes, spinal cord or brain. If many eggs are swallowed, severe central nervous system damage, eye damage or even death can result, Morishita said.

Everyone should be aware of potential areas that may contain raccoon droppings and should use caution in these areas, such as at the base of trees, in the forks of trees, on fallen logs, large rocks, woodpiles, decks, in attics, garages, chimneys, barns and outbuildings. Signs of raccoon roundworm infections in humans include sudden lethargy, loss of balance, abdominal pain, loss of muscle coordination and blindness. People should seek medical advice if these signs appear, Morishita said.

Chlamydiosis, histoplasmosis and salmonellosis are three diseases humans can get from wild birds. Chlamydiosis is a common disease of certain species of free-living birds caused by the bacteria chlamydia. Pigeons, doves and gulls are particularly susceptible to the disease. Signs of chlamydiosis in birds include a swollen head, discharge from the eyes, sneezing, difficult breathing and green diarrhea. People get the disease by direct contact with infected, sick or dead birds, or their feathers, droppings and secretions.

Most human infections are mild or unnoticed, but chlamydiosis can cause pneumonia and death, particularly in older people. Human symptoms include chills, fever, sweating, severe weakness, headache and blurred vision. Antibiotics usually clear up disease symptoms two or three days after treatment begins.

Histplasmosis is an infection caused by a fungus that grows well in soil enriched by bat or bird droppings that have accumulated for a period of time. If the contaminated soil is disturbed, spores are released that cause the infection when inhaled. Most people show no symptoms of histoplasmosis, but those who do may have fever, chest pains, or a cough and they can die if not treated.

Salmonellosis is an infection of the intestines cause by the bacteria salmonella. People can get the disease by having contact with bird droppings. Symptoms usually include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever. The illness is often worse in very young, elderly or immune-compromised people. The disease usually goes away without treatment, Morishita said.

When cleaning accumulated bird droppings from patios, attics or backyard bird feeders, people should wear gloves and masks that prevent breathing in dust from dried droppings, Morishita said. Hands should also be washed thoroughly after cleaning bird droppings or touching animals.

"Good hygiene is important when working with animals," she said. "A lot of diseases can be prevented with proper personal hygiene."

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