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Skunk rabies keeps spreading through the area, and health officials don't know when or where it'll stop

Bonnie Carlson's wildlife encounter outside her home north of Falcon sounds like a cross between Cujo and an old Pepé Le Pew episode.

In broad daylight on a recent Saturday, Carlson watched as a frenzied skunk chased her two dogs around the yard. It caught a piggyback ride from her boxer after clamping its jaws close to the dog's neck.

Carlson blasted the critter with a hose only to have it come straight for her, veering at the last moment to hide under the deck.

Wildlife officials and the state patrol weren't immediately available to help, but a neighbor with a .22 pistol was. He ended the ordeal with a skillful shot when the skunk — which later tested positive for rabies — charged again.

"This one was after us," Carlson says. "My fear is, these skunks are going to get the coyotes, and get them going."

At a time when swine flu is emptying classrooms and filling emergency rooms, health officials are watching a different kind of horror unfold as skunk rabies makes a steady incursion into increasingly populous parts of El Paso County.

Though Carlson's dogs were current on their rabies vaccinations, Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director of the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment, says the big unknown is whether enough unvaccinated pets are out there to make rabies a big threat to humans.

"If we start seeing it in dogs and cats, we're going to have a big problem," she says, noting that bites from domestic animals account for a multitude of emergency room visits across Colorado each year. "It would be a disaster if every pet bite had to be treated as a rabies risk."

Rabies is a virus that spreads when saliva from an infected animal gets into the bloodstream, through a bite or other broken skin. Though it can incubate for weeks after an infection, once symptoms show up — including headache, fever and manic behavior — brain swelling isn't far behind, and can cause death within days.

Skunks are now the main carrier of the strain present in El Paso County, but it can spread to other species and even between them.

So far, cases have been confirmed in a horse, a cow and a mountain lion.

Teneille Savka, an assistant at Colorado Equine Veterinary Services in Peyton, helped treat the Black Forest horse that caught skunk rabies, likely from a bite. Savka came in contact with the horse's saliva, so she's had to start a precautionary series of four rabies vaccines and get another injection containing antibodies to the virus.

"My butt's paying for it," she says. "Literally."

Skunks are nocturnal, so seeing them active during the day is often a sign something's wrong.

Claude Oleyar, owner of Alpine Animal Control, says he's heard of two cases of possibly rabid skunks inside Colorado Springs city limits, one in the Rustic Hills area and the other near Powers Boulevard and Old Ranch Road. But it was pretty much routine business when he recently trapped and killed about eight skunks near Garden of the Gods, observing no signs of rabies.

That could change.

"This is the first time in [decades] we've had it coming in like this," Oleyar says, musing about what will happen if it starts spreading among the coyotes, foxes and other wild animals that live in the city.

"It could get pretty nasty."

lane@csindy.com

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