Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Digging on the Dogs in a Land of Rabies

Today is World Rabies Day

I dig in the eastern United States, and we dig all year. There is no season here. All we have is the end of the calendar year.

The good news is that red fox are extremely plentiful.

The bad news is that unless you are running them with hounds (and I am not), they only go to ground in my area between January and February due to our relatively warm weather.

Of course, we have more than red fox. We also have grey fox, an animal not closely related, but quite similar in appearance, but with a dun-colored coat and a rather surprising ability to climb trees if pressed. This animal tends to den in rocky escarpments, and is more common in the mountains than in the farm country I normally hunt.

Groundhog are common all over, from mid-February to the first of December. They are a large and solitary marmot weighing 10 to 15 pounds, and they hibernate for a few months in winter, losing perhaps a third of their body weight during these lean times.

Though their jaws are short, their bite is more powerful than a fox, and their teeth are like sharpened chisels. Groundhogs do not look like much, but this animal can away dig like a badger, has no neck to throttle, and has a skull as thick as a frying pan. They are tougher than they appear, and I have seen more terriers punished by groundhog than by fox.

Possum can be found all year long, but I do not count them for much. They are an ugly and smelly creature that looks like a large rat, and they weigh anywhere from 9-15 pounds. Though this marsupial has more teeth than any other mammal in the America's, its teeth are small and they have light jaws and cannot do much damage to a dog.

Skunks are generally located to ground in late Fall, and are not a game species, but a small nightmare on legs. Yes, they can carry rabies, but this is not the main issue; it's the spray. A dog sprayed by a skunk underground may be dead in only a few minutes. Even if the dog is gotten out alive, skunk toxic shock may set in as red blood cells explode inside the dog due to the peculiar chemistry of the offending mist.

Finally, there are raccoons. Most raccoons den in old trees, but they will also go to ground and I often find them jungled up in old groundhog holes when the weather begins to turn cold. There is nothing quite like this animal in the U.K. -- it has hands almost as nimble as that of a small monkey, relatively powerful jaws, and can weigh up to 40 pounds, though in my experience those found underground rarely weigh over 20 pounds.

I dig on 25 to 100 animals a year, most of them groundhogs, and most of the time there is no drama to report.

The variation in numbers is a reflection of my work and family schedules, the weather, and my changing style of attack in the field.

When I was younger, I wanted a big bag at every outing, and so I would spend nine hours in the field making that happen. Now I am happy to bag one or two in a day, and trundle home a little past noon for some family time.

This year my count was 34: 19 groundhog, six raccoon, five fox (all let go), and four possums. A light year.

I mostly dig alone, not because I am a recluse, but because it's a long way between diggers in the U.S. If you dig very much over here, you learn to dig alone and to carry all your tools.

Looking back over the last year, I am happy to report no serious harm came to the dogs. There were a few muzzle rips, of course, but these were of no concern -- mere "shaving cuts" in the vernacular of American terrier work. The only thing that required a veterinary staple gun was when one dog was ragging a dead animal and, in its enthusiasm, it ran up against my sharpened machete which was stuck in the ground after the dig. Stupid me! The dog was stuck back together and out in the field two weeks later.

I do not count drama a mark of success in the field, and I am happy to report I have never had to call anyone else to help get a dog out of the ground, not have I ever had to call out heavy equipment. Knock on wood!

I am also happy to report I have never had a dog killed underground, though in the interest of full disclosure, I will say I did have one dog paralyzed for six hours after a Black Widow Spider bit her underground on a blistering hot day. Months later that dog later had a heart attack or embolism above ground after successfully working four earths earlier in the day. She would have died that day regardless -- I am happy when she went, she was out in the field, above ground, running down a freshly mowed field, and generally doing what she loved more in life than anything else. We should all be so lucky!

Did the spider bite weaken her heart? I do not know for certain, but I have always thought so. She was a much-loved dog, and I received condolences from four continents such was her fame. She was not much to look at, but she was the light of my life.

The ground where I dig is complex and the geology variable. Rocks and roots are common, sand almost unheard of.

The good news is that most settes are less than four feet, and two-foot "pop holes" are common enough to keep me happy.

A 10-foot dig? I do not count that a bonus!

The last dig of the year was a bit memorable.

It was, in most ways, a typical dig. I was walking the edge of a field, checking possible fox settes with my little bitch Pearl, when I noticed Mountain, my slightly larger bitch, had disappeared.

I found her a few minutes later, just inside the woods line. She was underground and baying up a storm.

I laughed, as I always do, and downed tools. I love to hear to code explode inside the dogs!

The sette was on a steep slope below the field, and there was a fair amount of loose rock at the hole -- a sette dug by a groundhog, without a doubt.

I staked Pearl 12 feet from the entrance, and located two possible exits. I slid a rock over one, and left the other one open -- a possible exit for the dog should a skunk be found to ground.

Mountain sounded, and from her baying, I could tell she was right up on it. I listened, and then I heard it -- the rumble of a big wooden table being pulled across a floor.

A raccoon!

I boxed with the locator, and was pleasantly surprised to find Mountain only three feet down. Excellent.

I started to take the first foot and a half of dirt off the top.

Dirt? What dirt? This earth was a jumble of shale and cobble. No doubt the stone made the dog sound deeper than she actually was.

I popped into the sette at only two and a half feet. Excellent. This was going to be an easy one!

Mountain was right where I dropped the hole, but my digging had caused a few stones to slip out of place. I pulled her out by her tail, gave her the harsh grunting sound that she understands to mean "let the man do his job," and I reached in to clean out the pipe.

She wanted back in, of course, but I pushed her away to shine a small flashlight up the hole.

Looking back at me was the face of a raccoon. Excellent!

I let Mountain back into the pipe to hold the raccoon at bay while I pulled a small pole snare from my pack.

I encourage the use of a pole snare at the end of a dig, as it saves the dog a lot of damage and allows an animal to be pulled, photographed and released without harm, or dispatched with a minimum of fuss.

If you dig as often as I do, your goal is to keep your dog healthy enough to work next weekend as well as this. There is also the little matter of rabies, which is endemic in the eastern U.S., especially in the mid-Atlantic region where I dig. The dogs are vaccinated, of course, but I am not.

My goal here was to pull Mountain, slip in the shovel, tie up Mountain, and then pull the shovel, and snare out the raccoon. Standard stuff. What could go wrong?

Of course, Mountain had not read the play book! While I was getting the snare from my pack, she grabbed the raccoon and pulled it clean out of the pipe.

Whoops! The battle was on!

Now to be clear, hunting with terriers is not animal fighting, and a dog is not supposed to be engaged with the quarry outside of the pipe.

Such is theory.

Of course, in theory, practice and theory are the same, but in practice they never are!

It all happened very quickly.

With the raccoon free of the den pipe, Mountain and the raccoon were a rolling ball of fur and teeth.

There was no place to put in a boot to pin the raccoon, so I reached in to pull the raccoon's back haunch, in the hope of seeing, and getting hold, of its tail.

Like a flash, however, the raccoon spun around and sank a canine tooth through my leather glove and into the base of my thumb.

A few second later, it was all over; the raccoon was tailed out, the boot was on, and the animal was humanely dispatched as quickly as it takes to say it.

My thumb did not hurt, and I was not even sure the raccoon had bit me. When I pulled the glove off, however, there it was: a single puncture and a spot of blood.

Now what?

You see, rabies is endemic in my area, and it is particularly common in the raccoon population. I know that, and act accordingly. As a consequence, I have never been bit.

Up to now.

Still, what were the odds? This appeared to be a healthy animal.

I washed out the wound, let it bleed, and washed it out again.

I thought about the options. It was Sunday. Even if I took the animal to be tested, that would not happen until tomorrow, and they would still require me to get rabies shots while the testing was being done.

I was conflicted. The chance of this animal being rabid was very low, but it was not zero.

If you Google "rabies" in this country, you find a couple of articles a day, and a lot of them are from my area and involve raccoons.

On the upside, there had been only one fatal case of rabies in the U.S. in the last 10 years.

On the downside, it had occurred just 20 minutes up the road.

I washed out the wound again, checked over Mountain (she was fine), and examined the raccoon. It looked healthy.

I thought about the production and drama that would be made if I took in the raccoon, or told my wife I had gotten bitten. I would never hear the end of it.

Of course, on the other end of the stick there was the prospect of dying from rabies. Would my son have to go out to the wood shed and shoot me like the rabid dog in the Disney movie, Old Yeller?

I repaired the sette and removed the stone from the blocked hole.

I packed up the tools, and swung the dead raccoon up high into the fork of a small tree to get it out of the way so the dogs would not rag it.

And then I left.

I fretted about my decision for the next few days, but my decision had been made by my actions, not by rational calculus.

I read up on rabies. It was slow acting. An early symptom was a headache that would not go away.


If that symptom occurred, I would take drastic action. By then, of course, treatment would be too late. I would have to choose my own exit.

In the interim, there was nothing to do but go about business as usual, which I did.

But of course, I still worried.

Two weeks later, and with no headache, I began to make a private joke. If I said something out of line, to a coworker, I would laugh it off. "Don't mind me; it's just the rabies talking."

Everyone laughed. They had no idea.

I seemed to be passing for normal, which is better than most days.

I relaxed, and the worry orbited out of the front room in my mind.

Now, four months later, I am in the clear.

No worries.


Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Just a thought, but seeing as you're in the line of fire with all manner of mammalian wildlife in an area with endemic rabies, wouldn't it be a good idea to get yourself the pre-exposure rabies vaccine?

Given how expensive the post-exposure treatment is, doing so might even get you a health insurance discount, on account of how you'd not need the post-exposure treatment.

M said...

My Dad processes the local wildlife and pets brought in for rabies testing so I am familiar with a number of stories related to rabies possible transmission to people. I am always loathe to remind the non vaccinators among the dog ownership crowd that there is no rabies blood test for dogs. The tests are always the same, lop the head off the animal, test brain matter or put animal in a run and wait for symptoms 90 days or 6months depending on the local assessed risks. At first sign of illness lop head off the animal, check the brain for the disease.

I can't speak to the east coast but here on my particular section of the west coast the most common rabies vectors are bats, raccoons, skunks, and cats in that order. At least here you can drop off a deceased animal to test for rabies with the local health dept which would probably be what I would have suggested you to do - results are back in a couple days and the test itself costs the submitter nothing (it costs the county about $110 here).

Seahorse said...

Though I understand the rabies virus is fairly fragile and a good wash-out with soap and water generally does the trick, your wife owes you a big whack to your head. Unless you're heavily insured, of course!

Seahorse ;) (Word verification: "dedible", as in, "You coulda been dedible!")

Bartimaeus said...

I would agree with Dr. Holdsworth-pre-exposure vaccinations would be a good idea, and you are not absolutely out of the woods yet, the incubation can sometimes be as long as 6 months. Really not something to take a chance with, and the vaccine is safe, and way better than dying of Rabies.

PBurns said...

This dig occured more than 20 months ago now (this squib was written 15 months ago or more), so I AM very clearly out of the woods.

I am told pre-exposure vaccines (I had the very first version of those when I was a kids overseas in Africa) do not mean that you do not need a post-bite series of shots after the fact, which I probably *should* have gotten and will next time.

The main take away for me, however, is that I need to respect even the little critters like this small raccoon. I invented the snare I use for a reason. One reason is to save the dog a lot of wreckage, a second reason is to let more animals go at the end of the dig, but the third reason is to avoid bites in a land with rabies. In this case, I got bit because I did not respect the critter enough and was moving too fast to help the dog.

For those interested in how things like vaccines, seat belts, police and insurance change behavior (and not always for the best!) read this article on how reductions in "moral hazard" costs tend to increase risky behavior >> I have regular vaccines and I wear motorcycle helmets because there are things I cannot control (airborne disease vectors and drunks on the road). But I also do not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes because there are things I can control. I can control my interactions with animals -- make the decision to have those interactions, but always under my terms. Out of a 1,000 of those I have only been bitten once so far, and I know why. No more reaching for a haunch!

A funny thing about risk avoidance, however it that whatever you do, and however it goes, at the end of it all you still die. Suicide to avoid the rise of rabies will at least be a good story that will put me in the books!


Seahorse said...

Back in the '50's when we lived in Africa, my brother, then about four or five years old, was bitten by a neighbor's German Shepherd. She was a new mother, and he was playing with the family's children. She went for him in impressive fashion, biting him all over, to include his head. Back then it was still 21 painful injections to the stomach, which he still talks about. She was a white shepherd, though in his memory she was black (the mind is so interesting!). She was quarantined and was not rabid, of course, but rather simply protective of her pups. But, especially in Africa, no messing around if there was a threat of rabies. He terrorized me my entire childhood, telling me the ravages of rabies and how I'd probably contract it myself one day! Older brothers!

Seahorse ;)

Seahorse said...

I remember when Sailor died, and you mentioned then that she'd sustained a Black Widow bite a few months before. In reading this post I wondered how you knew that's what happened since it was underground. Is there a particular reaction dogs have to such a bite? I'd gone my entire life never seeing a Black Widow until about a month ago. I was startled to find one working on our barbeque grill. Thinking immediately of Sailor, I hustled the dogs inside and went back to kill the bitch. Seems a little silly to state the obvious, but I was struck that she was as vivid as every photograph I'd ever seen of these spiders.


PBurns said...

There are very few things in field or forest that can harm a dog in this area, and I know all of them. Copperheads are dramatically overrated as a problem, watermocassins do not exist until you get into southern Virginia (a black snake in the water around here is a rat snake or a racer), and skunks and bees are obvious. That leaves a blackwidow spider which is a neurotoxin and fits with what happened to Sailor. They are rare in general, but like dark moist places and are paricularly common in the corners of sheds and just under the lip of rural outhouses. For the story of the day Sailor got bit, see >> and for the day she died >>

I loved that little dog more than anything in the world! My heart aches just thinking about her.


mscriver said...

In the Seventies I was an animal control officer. The prevention vaccine had just been devised, so we took the shots. The young and vigorous (I was in those days) and the women (I still am) had immunity soon. The old guys had titers that failed to go up. (They said ruefully they were used to it.)

The newer shots (gamma globulin?) were not so many nor so painful. They were developed in Israel where rabies is still a problem. In fact, soldiers in the Middle East need to be alert.

We had dog license collectors who went door-to-door. The goal was not the license but the fact that they had to have proof of rabies shots for their dogs in order to get the license. The larger goal was a percentage of dogs vaccinated, so as to block communication of the virus. If the dog bit someone and did NOT have a rabies shots, the law allowed us to euthanize it and saw off its head to send in for testing. A hacksaw works. We also automatically sent in bats. I had a pet raccoon in my "beat" that had had shots, but no one knew whether they would work on the beast, who regularly bit people. There was also a pet skunk with a bad temper. Such creatures are not always a country problem.

There was a doctor at Oregon Health Sciences who had a boy with rabies in his care. The father had flown himself, the boy, and a dog they picked up as a stray in Mexico in a private plane, evading customs. The boy died. The doc was obsessed. He had a movie of kids in the Chicago ghetto dying of rabies in the Thirties.

The license collectors got really bummed by balky citizens. Even worse was the crew that had to alphabetize the certificates day after day. I showed them the movie. After that, morale and determination were high.

I did a bit of research and was told that possoms are too primitive to catch rabies. In short, it's a brain disease and they don't have enough brains to catch it. Can you confirm? They look very scary, but in the time I was there we only had one bite report from them. A lady spotted a young one and tried to pick it up to pet it. What I read also suggested that rodents (including rats) were not likely to catch it. I'm skeptical.

Getcher preventive shots, Patrick, while you're still young!

Prairie Mary
(Mary Scriver
Valier, Montana)

PBurns said...

As I said, I will get a rabies shot if I am bitten in the future, but I am not yet convinced that the prophylactic shot does much -- it's five shots either way. It turns out low titers may not mean much; we have learned a lot from HIV research and one of those things is that T-cell immunity is not dependent on titer level. And T-cell immunity rarely disappears; I may have T-cell immunity from those shots I got 40 years ago (where most of the rest of my immune system comes from too)

For the record, however, here's some data (source = )

Rabies deaths average 1-2 a year in the U.S. (out of population of over 300 million) and in a significant number of these cases, there is no known animal bite or else the rabies infection comes from overseas.

Of the 30 rabies deaths in the US in the the last 12 years, for example, five were contracted overseas, five came from organ donors/transplants, and at least three had no known animal contact. Of the rabies cases that came from known animal bites, 9 cases were from bats and six were from dogs (wild and otherwise).

The single case of raccoon rabies tranmission in the last 12 years is associated with a person who had no known contact with a raccoon.

Possums DO have brains, and they CAN catch rabies, but they cannot HOLD rabies, as the virus dies in a few days (maybe less 24 hours) due to the low body temperature of possums.

How does rabies compare compared to other potential animal and outdoor deaths?

It does not scale.

Deaths from bee stings in the US are greater than 50 per year.

Dogs kill 20-30 people a year.

The chance of a deer-impact mortality is pretty high. In fact, the chance of vehicle impact is 1 in 137 per year in my home state of Virginia, and 1 in 208 nationally (see ) Total deer- and other animal-vehicle related deaths are over 200 per year (see


Seahorse said...

I just re-read the story of the day Sailor got bitten by the Black Widow. I'd forgotten the details, which are truly awful and made me unsettled just reading. I think I know the vet practice in Vienna, too, having taken a parrot there late on a Saturday night just before blasting out of the country on vacation. Fortunately, he lives, and the vet I encountered there was kinder than the one you saw. I had forgotten, too, how powerful the toxin in the cursed spider is. I'd convinced myself it was akin to a wasp sting (maybe it is, given they can kill as well), and yet the first thing I did upon seeing "my" Black Widow was clear my dogs away, the story of Sailor leading my actions, however many details I'd forgotten. I can't read the story of her death again. I re-read it a couple of months ago and I don't feel like crying right now. We're facing the eminent loss of another pet and I'm already up-to-here in sadness. Thanks for the education, as always.