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Health officials urge owners to vaccinate their pets against rabies

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Eight skunks in Jefferson County have tested positive for rabies this winter. County Health officials say this is number is unusually high. They're urging more pet owners in rural areas across northern New York to vaccinate their pets to stop the spread of the fatal disease to humans.

Faith Lustik remembers the first time this winter she got a call about skunks. Two were spotted in a Watertown neighborhood acting strangely.

"One of the skunks actually chased a woman and she subsequently was bitten by it," Lustik said.

Lustik, who's the public health planner for Jefferson County, says the woman was transported to the hospital, got a rabies shot and is doing fine. That happened in early December. Since then, Lustik says she gets calls every week from people worried about encountering an infected animal in the city.

"We've gotten calls from people who say a fox ran across the road. Things like that. Just because you see a skunk doesn't meant its rabid."

Lustik says its not unusual to find the occasional rabid fox, skunk or raccoon throughout the year.  Its this cluster of infection over a few months that's new. She thinks the mild winter is playing a part.

"We've been hoping that the weather would cool off and stay cool so that the skunks would stay in their den but that hasn't happened with our ups and downs. As it warms up, they leave their den looking for food and there's more of a chance of exposing pets or people."

The New York State nDepartment of Environmental Conservation is setting traps in the county for the rabid animals. Lustik is asking residents not to leave pet food outside. She says it's important that dogs and cats, even those that stay indoors, are up to date on their rabies shot.