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Rabies Risk In Livestock Low, Despite Wildlife Cases

Chris Eversole

Paul Nicoletti (352) 392-4700 ext. 5860
Thomas Lane (352) 392-4700 ext. 4024
Carol Lehtola (352) 392-8064

GAINESVILLE With rabies menacing Florida raccoons and other wildlife, dairy farmers, ranchers and horse owners are asking whether they should give rabies shots to their animals.Vaccinations aren’t essential, two University of Florida veterinarians said.

“We’re not seeing enough cases of rabies in livestock and horses to justify widespread vaccinations,” said UF veterinarian Paul Nicoletti, who serves on the Florida Department of Health’s Rabies Advisory Committee.

While the risk is small, owners of prized cattle and horses may want to have them vaccinated to be totally safe, said Thomas Lane, extension veterinarian for UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “The cost of rabies shots is low compared to the cost of losing a valuable animal and the trouble and worry if you suspect an animal has contracted rabies.”

Only one confirmed case of rabies in cattle and two cases in horses were reported in Florida last year. In contrast, 153 cases of rabies in raccoons — 71 percent of the 215 cases in the state, were found, according to the State Department of Health.

Other wildlife accounted for all but 18 of the rabies cases in Florida. The 18 cases included 13 cats and two dogs. Things are different elsewhere because the animals that rabies hits the hardest vary from state to state.

In the Midwest, skunks are a major carrier of the disease and pose a threat to cattle. In Iowa, for example, skunks accounted for 70 cases — 58 percent of the state’s 153 total cases — last year.

Skunks sometimes transmit rabies to Iowa cattle by biting them, said Russ Currier, the state’s public health veterinarian. Last year, 22 Iowa cattle tested positive for rabies, compared to the single infected cow in Florida.

Only two skunks tested positive for rabies in Florida last year. “We’re lucky that skunks aren’t a major rabies carrier here,” said Nicoletti, who is a professor in UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Raccoons live mostly in swampy areas and seldom enter pastures, but skunks roam the countryside.”

Despite the low risk of rabies in Florida, farmers and ranchers should be careful in examining dairy cows, beef cattle and horses that become ill, said Carol Lehtola, the state agricultural safety specialist for UF’s Cooperative Extension Service.

“Wear gloves when examining animals,” she said. “A rabid animal’s saliva could get on your hands. You potentially could become infected if you then rubbed your eyes or mouth or if the saliva got into an open wound.”

Lehtola also warned against befriending wildlife. “Be suspicious of any wild animal that comes near you or your home,” she said. “If it seems easy to approach, it may be disoriented by rabies. The best bet is to call animal control personnel to check on it.”

UF researchers and state officials are keeping an eye on the state’s growing coyote population because the wily critters have a history of transmitting rabies to dogs and other pets in the Southwest.

Coyotes have been found in every Florida county except for Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys. “I fear that, sooner or later, we’re going to have rabies in coyotes in Florida,” Nicoletti said.

More agricultural safety tips are available at, the Web site of the Florida Agsafe Network.