Rabid squirrels 'extraordinarily rare,' lab expert says

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No need to worry about rampaging rabid squirrels.

Mike Pentella, associate director of University Hygienic Laboratory, called this weekend’s case of a rabid squirrel in Iowa City extraordinarily rare.

In fact, there have been only two other cases in the United States this decade in which squirrels tested positive for rabies, and only seven from 1990 to 1999, he said, “so this is number 10 in 19 years.”

The lab, at the University of Iowa’s Oakdale campus, tested the squirrel’s brain, which was positive for rabies.

Lab data showed that of 303 squirrels tested in Iowa between 1998 and 2008, none were positive for the deadly disease.

University Hygienic Laboratory’s statewide rabies data: www.uhl.uiowa.edu/services/rabies/data.xml

A squirrel bit a woman Friday in the 3200 block of Raven Street, according to Iowa City’s Animal Services.

Chad Mason, animal services assistant, said the woman was getting into her car in her garage when the squirrel came out and bit her foot.

Mason said the woman left the squirrel in the garage and an animal control officer picked it up the next day.

The officer found the squirrel acting strangely — lethargic one minute and attacking the next. The animal would also fall asleep when eating, then suddenly wake up.

Mason said the worker, who was vaccinated against rabies, was bit by the squirrel through her glove. She is receiving two booster shots. The other woman planned to undergo a series of rabies shots, he said.

Based on the strain of rabies, Pentella said the squirrel could have acquired the disease from a bat bite. It likely was not spread from squirrel to squirrel, he said.

Bats often get a bad rap for having rabies, but of 358 bats tested statewide last year, only eight were rabid. That compares to six positive cases of just 10 skunks tested in 2008.

Pentella said Iowans should not be worried that normally behaving squirrels in their neighborhood might be rabid.

When a wild animal exhibits unusual behavior, it's time to become concerned, he said.

“Certainly a squirrel attacking you is highly unusual,” Pentella said.

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