A Florida man and dog were attacked by a rabid otter. Here’s what to know about the symptoms and treatment.

A Florida man and dog were attacked by a rabid otter. Here’s what to know about the symptoms and treatment.

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A rabid otter bit a man and a dog in Florida last week, prompting authorities to issue a warning. After the attack in Jupiter, Florida, local animal control officers picked up the otter and it tested positive for rabies, a life-threatening infection, according to the Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County.

CBS Miami reports Joseph Scaglione was bitten 41 times on his legs, arms and hands, and is now getting treatment. Scaglione told the station he was feeding ducks outside the gate of his backyard last week when the otter emerged from a pond and attacked.

“My pinky is the worst. I have two puncture wounds. I’m not sure if it goes right through or whatever. One is on the corner of where the cuticle was,” Scaglione said. Later that day in the same neighborhood, the otter attacked a dog that was with its owners and their baby. Residents helped capture the otter in a recycling bin, and it has been euthanized, CBS Miami reported.

The health department is warning residents to avoid contact with wildlife, including cats that may be feral, and to report any suspicious animals to Animal Care and Control. 

What is rabies, and what are the symptoms? 

Rabies is a viral disease carried by animals, and it can be spread to humans through a bite or scratch. Only a very small number of people have survived rabies without prompt medical treatment, and there is no effective cure once the disease takes hold, according to the Mayo Clinic. People who are believed to be exposed to rabies must receive a series of shots to try to prevent the infection from running its lethal course.

Domestic dogs cause 99% of rabies cases in humans around the world, but in the U.S. such cases are very rare. Wild animals such as bats or raccoons can also transmit the disease through saliva. 

Rabies affects the central nervous system and can cause fever and a tingling, burning sensation which then progresses to fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, the World Health Organization explains.

The incubation period — or time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms — can range anywhere from one week to one year, but is usually around two to three months, according to WHO. 

Paralytic rabies is one of two forms of rabies that develops gradually and paralyzes muscles. It then usually leads to coma and death.

The other type, furious rabies, can cause hallucinations, lack of coordination, a fear of water — a symptom known as hydrophobia — and fear of fresh air or drafts. This form usually causes death more quickly, with patients often experiencing cardio-respiratory arrest within a few days. 

Treatment for rabies

While it is preventable with rabies vaccines, if rabies is transmitted and symptoms start to develop, it is virtually 100% fatal, health officials say. 

“If you’ve been in contact with any wildlife or unfamiliar animals, particularly if you’ve been bitten or scratched, you should talk with a healthcare or public health professional to determine your risk for rabies or other illnesses,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. “Wash any wounds immediately with soap and water and then plan to see a healthcare provider.”

Depending on the type of exposure and the animal involved, health officials may recommend a series of shots to protect a person from developing rabies. That typically involves one dose of human rabies immune globulin, or HRIG, to provide antibodies against rabies, and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period, the CDC says.

“Current vaccines are relatively painless and are given in your arm like a flu or tetanus vaccine,” the CDC says.

To help protect your pets, the Florida Department of Health recommends keeping pets’ rabies shots up to date, supervising pets and reporting any activity with wild animals. They also advise calling animal control to remove strays, as well as taking other measures like teaching kids not to interact with unfamiliar animals.

What is hydrophobia?

Hydrophobia is an irrational fear of water that is a clinical characteristic of human rabies, according to the National Library of Medicine.

The symptom usually occurs with spasms of the pharynx, or cavity behind the nose and mouth. 

Doctors published a case study in 2018 describing the case of a man who was diagnosed with rabies after experiencing hydrophobia. The 49-year-old went to the hospital two months after being bitten by a dog because he was experiencing the spasms. He also experienced extreme thirst, but any time he attempted to drink water, it caused a spasm.

He died the day he went to the hospital and postmortem tests confirmed he had rabies. 

He had only received one dose of rabies post-exposure vaccine, not the four doses recommended, according to the study.

Otter attacks

While rabid otter attacks like the one Joseph Scaglione experienced are rare, erratic otters have made headlines in recent months. 

In California, an otter was caught on camera jumping on a surfer’s board in July. “An aggressive sea otter in the area is biting, scratching and climbing on surfboards,” the Santa Cruz Police Department wrote on Facebook. “There have been four incidents of otter interactions with surfers in Santa Cruz.” 

In a statement to CBS News, a representative for the the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the otter in question was a 5-year-old female “exhibiting concerning and unusual behaviors” including “approaching surfers and kayakers recreating in the area.”

The department told people to enter the water at their own risk as officials tried to caputre the otter. 

And in August, an otter in Montana attacked three women while they were tubing in a river. 

“While attacks from otters are rare, otters can be protective of themselves and their young, especially at close distances,”  the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said, adding they “may also be protective of food resources, especially when those resources are scarce.”

In that case, officials advised people being attacked by an otter to fight back, get out of the water and seek medical attention. 

In 2016, doctors in Canada published a study about animal bites after a river otter bit a 52-year-old woman in Quebec. 

According to the study, only 44 otter attacks had been published worldwide since 1875. The authors said it’s rare for the North American river otter to interact with people, so aggressive encounters are not common. 

“Such encounters are often the consequence of human encroachment upon otter territory, and the resulting injuries may be quite severe, because river otters have sharp canines and carnassials,” the study reads. “Although uncommon, rabies in these aquatic mammals has been described.”

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