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News that a Warren County man was bitten by a coyote that was rabid serves as a reminder that all sorts of mammals can carrry the potentially lethal virus - even in a highly populated state like New Jersey. Twenty different species of pets and wildlife have...

Wide range of animals present rabies threat in N.J.

News that a Warren County man was bitten by a coyote that was rabid serves as a reminder that all sorts of mammals can carrry the potentially lethal virus - even in a highly populated state like New Jersey. Twenty different species of pets and wildlife have...

Wide range of animals present rabies threat in N.J.

News that a Warren County man was bitten by a coyote that was rabid serves as a reminder that all sorts of mammals can carrry the potentially lethal virus - even in a highly populated state like New Jersey.

Twenty different species of pets and wildlife have tested positive for rabies in the last few years, with some unexpected culprits in the mix, according to data collected by the N.J. Department of Health.

Bats account for more than a fifth of the 262 documented cases of rabies infection discovered in testing last year by the department's Division of Epidemiology, Environmental and Occupational Health. The cases represent the number of animals infected with rabies, not incidents of people contracting rabies.  

Among domesticated animals, the biggest culprits are cats, which account for 90 percent of rabies cases that category. An average of 16 cats have tested positive for rabies annually over the last five years.

Dogs, by comparison, pose far less risk, with just eight cases reported since 1989. (One of those, diagnosed in Essex County in 1989, acquired rabies in Iraq and became ill shortly after being brought to New Jersey.)

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A total of 276 Garden State residents got preventive shots in 2016 based on concern about possible exposure to rabies, according to state records. The virus is fatal if not treated before symptoms appear one to three months later.

Many of those reported exposures were deemed to be "low risk," said health department spokesman Nicole Kirgan. "Thankfully we rarely have human rabies cases."

Few regions of the state are immune from the risk, although heavily urbanized Hudson County often has the fewest cases in the annual survey. Most of the other counties have an average of 10 animals a year that have tested positive.

Rabies is a virus that can infect mid- to large-size mammals, ranging in size from bears to bats. Rabid animals often lose their fear of humans and may become vicious and attack for no reason. Their appearance may be unusual - showing weakness, paralysis, or a dropped jaw. They may also chew on non-food items such as rocks or dog chains, say wildlife experts.

Through the first nine months of 2016, New Jersey health testing found rabies in:

  • Raccoons (108 cases)
  • Skunks (20)
  • Foxes (8)
  • Cats (18)
  • Dogs (1)
  • Groundhogs (4)
  • Bats (52)
  • Kudu - One case was reported in the exotic antelope that is native to Africa. The animal was born here and bitten here, according to the department of health, which did not disclose the location.

In previous years, rabies has also turned up in beavers, otters, rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, coyotes, deer, and one bear.

The last rabies death in the state was that of a 32-year-old man from Warren County, who had apparently been bitten without realizing it while ridding his family's apartment of bats in 1997. When he showed up sick at the hospital three months later, it was too late for him to receive the life-saving vaccine shots that can stop the progress of the virus.

The only other recent New Jersey case of a human victim of rabies took place in 2011, when a 73-year-old woman with many underlying health problems went to Overlook Hospital with complaints of right shoulder pain, chest pain, headaches, and increased blood pressure.

As her symptoms worsened, she was eventually diagnosed with rabies and told them she had been bitten by a dog in her native Haiti. She also died. Many family members, fellow congregants and hospital staffers chose to receive the series of preventive shots.

While rabies isn't contagious from person to person in the typical sense, it can be transferred by direct contact with body fluids.

Kathleen O'Brien may be reached at kobrien@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBrienLedger. Find NJ.com on Facebook.  

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