Some good news: Virginia’s 2023 rabies numbers are looking normal

By: - July 20, 2023 12:10 am

A raccoon in a swamp. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Despite some local upticks in animal rabies reports, Virginia health officials said cases in the commonwealth this year are in line with averages from the past decade. 

“While local health department statistics may vary and some localities may experience a series of rabies oriented events in quick succession, currently, from a statewide standpoint, we are reporting average levels of laboratory confirmed rabid animals,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Julia Murphy in an email. 

According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, roughly 3,000 animals in the state are tested for rabies annually. Over the past decade, an average of 9.5% to 13.8% of those animals tested positive for the disease every year.

As of the beginning of June, VDH had tested 1,472 animals for rabies this year, with 10.5% testing positive, said Murphy. 

“Exposure reports typically increase in the warmer months since people and their pets are outside more and more likely to contact wildlife,” said Murphy. “By extension, animal testing for rabies typically increases in May, June, July and August. Sometimes that is when rabies, which is in circulation in wildlife year round, can become more ‘noticeable,’ if you will, and there is greater rabies awareness.” 

While the statewide average remains in the normal range, some parts of the state — like the Chickahominy Health District, which covers a swathe of rural central Virginia outside Richmond — have seen localized upticks in cases.

Between Jan. 1 and June 13 of this year, the Chickahominy district had 243 reports of bites or exposures and 10 confirmed cases of rabies. Over the same period of 2022, the district also had 243 reports of bites or exposures but only five confirmed cases. 

Caitlin Hodge, a population health manager with the district, said the higher figure may be due to greater amounts of reporting and testing rather than a greater prevalence of the virus. 

“More rabies testing has been done compared to this time last year,” Hodge said in an email. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is more rabies in the animal population in our area.”

For the past few years, the largest number of confirmed cases in animals have occurred in Fairfax County, followed by Loudoun.

Kirsten Kohl, a rabies specialist with the Fairfax County Health Department, said in an email that Fairfax’s count of rabies-positive animals is generally higher because the county is Virginia’s most populous, accounting for about 14% of the state population. 

“In 2020, VDH reported 47 rabid animals in Fairfax County and 329 rabid animals total in the state, meaning Fairfax accounted for about 14.3% of the rabid animals in the state that year — on par with our population,” she wrote. 

Raccoons have accounted for the majority of Fairfax’s positive cases in recent years. Kohl said the relocation of raccoons from Florida into Virginia in the 1950s led to a sharp increase in “raccoon-variant rabies” in the state.

“Raccoons are typically very adaptable animals and adjust well to urban and suburban environments,” she said. “Additionally, rapid urbanization directly causes habitat fragmentation, causing existing large animal habitats to be broken into small, isolated patches, and forcing many animals to adapt to live among humans more and more.” 

That species, along with skunks and foxes, are the most common carriers of rabies in Virginia. However, Murphy cautioned that any mammal, including humans, can become infected from the disease, which is almost 100% fatal once symptoms appear. Since 2009, the state has seen only two human rabies cases.

“One of the very most important ways you can protect yourself and your pets is by having your veterinarian vaccinate your pets for rabies and keeping their vaccinations up to date,” she wrote. “Vaccinating domestic animals, like dogs and cats, not only protects them, but creates a protective barrier between wildlife and people. So if we protect our pets, we protect ourselves.”

Anyone who has potentially been exposed to a rabid animal — including bites, scratches or contact with saliva — should notify their doctor immediately.


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.