Rabies has been reported in the area not too far from Jacksonville and local residents are being warned by state authorities to take appropriate precautions.

A family’s pet cat from Cabot has tested positive for rabies by the Arkansas Department of Health. Rabies has not been seen in Lonoke County since 2002, and that was a rabid bat. In general, dogs and cats that develop rabies in Arkansas get infected by a rabid skunk. The last time Lonoke County had a rabid skunk was in 1996. The cat had not been vaccinated against rabies and only appeared sick the same day it passed away.

According to Susan Weinstein, DVM, state public health veterinarian, "Once we know we have active rabies in a particular area, we want the public to beware and to protect their dogs, cats, horses and livestock with rabies vaccinations."

"This should serve as a reminder to anyone who has pets to make sure they are current on their vaccinations," Weinstein said. Changes in Arkansas law in 2010 allow for vaccination for rabies once every three years for dogs and cats with the appropriate vaccine.

All dogs and cats in Arkansas are required by state law to be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian. This protects the animal and acts as a barrier between the wildlife exposures of rabies and people, since pets are more likely to be exposed to a rabid skunk directly than people. Any rabies vaccine given by an owner with an over-the-counter product cannot be counted as vaccinated, as there is no assurance it was stored or given properly. There is also usually no documentation of a date when the vaccine was given.

The rabies virus attacks the brain and spinal cord and is a fatal disease. The virus lives in the saliva (spit) and nervous tissues of infected animals and is spread when they bite or scratch.

The virus also may be spread if saliva from an infected animal touches broken skin, open wounds or the lining of the mouth, eyes or nose. It is most often seen in animals such as skunks and bats. Cats, dogs, ferrets and livestock can also develop rabies, especially if they are not vaccinated.

The first sign of rabies in an animal is usually a change in behavior. Rabid animals may attack people or other animals for no reason, or they may lose their fear of people and seem unnaturally friendly. Staggering, convulsions, choking, frothing at the mouth and paralysis are often present. Skunks may be seen out in daylight, which is an unusual behavior for them, or they may get into a dog pen or under a house. Many animals have a marked change in voice pitch, such as a muted or off-key tone. An animal usually dies within one week of demonstrating signs of rabies. Not all rabid animals act in these ways, however, so you should avoid all wild animals—especially skunks, bats and stray cats and dogs.

So far in 2013, the state has had 93 rabid animals (87 skunks, one bat, two dogs, one horse, one cow and now one cat) test positive for rabies. Most years, the Public Health Lab tests around 1,000 animals for rabies and averages 50 positive cases. So far this year the lab has tested over 550 animals for rabies.

"If you think you have become exposed to an animal with rabies, wash your wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. Contact your physician immediately and report the incident. The animal in question should be captured, if possible, without damaging its head or risking further exposure," Weinstein said. "If an apparently healthy, domesticated dog or cat bites a person, it must be captured, confined and observed daily for 10 days following the bite. If the animal remains healthy during this period of time, it did not transmit rabies at the time of the bite. The brain tissue of all wild animals must be tested for rabies if human exposure has occurred."

How can you protect yourself from rabies?

— Be sure dogs, cats and ferrets are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations;

— Do not feed, touch or adopt wild animals;

— Keep family pets indoors at night;

— Bat-proof your home or summer camp in the fall or winter (The majority of human rabies cases are caused by bat bites.;

— Encourage children to immediately tell an adult if any animal bites them

— Teach children to avoid wildlife, strays and all other animals they do not know well;

— Report all animal bites or contact with wild animals to the nearest local health unit. Do not let any animal escape that has possibly exposed someone to rabies. Depending on the species, an animal can be observed or tested for rabies in order to avoid the need for rabies treatment. For more information, call the Lonoke County Health Unit at 843-7561 (Cabot) or 676-2268 (Lonoke), or Susan Weinstein, DVM, state public health veterinarian, at 280-4136.