Sunday, June 7, 2015

Rabies, coyotes and ticks, oh my! Perils abound in the backyard this summer

By Linda Wilson Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Heidi Meyers watched in horror as a coyote near her rural Washington County home chased her 14-pound miniature dachshund, Rusty, who ran as fast as he could with his tail between his legs.

“The coyote got within 3 feet of Rusty and seemed to hesitate because I was screaming,” Ms. Meyers said. “I ran toward the coyote before it backed off ” and ran away. 

Coyotes, deer, hawks, raccoons and other wildlife are out there, along with insects and other creatures large and small. In spring and summer, people and their pets are outdoors more, increasing the chance of close and sometimes dangerous encounters.

In suburban and urban settings, wildlife is bountiful and becoming increasingly accustomed to living near humans and domesticated animals. Wild animals lose their fear of people and have begun to encroach on backyards. 

Tips for a safe summer outdoors
Here are tips from experts on how you and your pets can deal with wild animals, insect diseases and other outdoor summertime dangers:
Coyotes: Yell, stomp your feet, shake a jacket or noisemaker, pop an umbrella, flash a flashlight or toss a rock;
Rabid animals: When picking up a dead animal for testing, wear gloves, use a shovel to pick it up, put it in a box and double bag it. For testing: 412-687-2243.
Fawns: Keep pets and children away from young deer because does are aggressively protective.
Ticks, fleas on pets: Pet owners should consult their veterinarian about the wide array of products and prescriptions. DEET is a recommended insect repellent.
Lyme disease: Many vets recommend a yearly blood test to check for Lyme disease because it can be difficult to see tiny ticks.
No pets unattended: This rule is a good protection against deer and hawks and also is a safeguard against raccoons and groundhogs that can be aggressive when sick with distemper.
Deer feces: It’s smelly and unattractive but generally not lethal if eaten by pets.
Ticks on people: Remove ticks immediately, check clothing and skin, take a shower and wash and dry clothing. Wear light-colored clothes to more easily see the blacklegged ticks. Wear a hat to keep ticks out of hair. Tuck socks into shoes or boots. Outdoor clothing should be treated with permethrin, a synthetic chemical that repels insects.
The attraction is the food humans provide, such as plants in gardens and yards, leftovers tossed into garbage cans and bowls of pet food left outdoors and feeder stations.

Deer have kicked and stomped dogs. They pose danger by jumping through glass windows of homes, businesses and offices and they leave piles of feces that often are eaten by pets.

Hawks have attacked small dogs; coyotes kill and eat small mammals, and they’re a threat to cats and small pets.

But perhaps the most dangerous outdoor threat is posed by the blacklegged tick, suggests Tom Fazi, education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission southwest region.
Ticks, which are classified as arachnids, along with spiders and scorpions, have four pairs of legs and carry the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that cause Lyme disease in humans and dogs.

The ticks start at the size of a pencil point, said Bill Todaro, entomologist at the Allegheny County Health Department. As adults engorged with blood, they grow to the size of a sesame seed.

“Blacklegged ticks are in every county in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Todaro said. “Twenty years ago that was not true. Thirty to 60 percent of the ticks are now infected with the borrelia bacteria.”

The tiny creatures are sometimes called “deer ticks,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer. In the course of their lives, blacklegged ticks live and feed off a number of animals, including mice. They move on to larger animals, including deer, in the later stages of their lives.

A blood test confirmed that Mr. Fazi’s English setter had Lyme disease, though the dog had not shown any symptoms. Mr. Fazi’s dog was treated with antibiotics.

Ms. Meyers has three miniature dachshunds and she never lets them off leash on her 20-acre homestead. She has a good reason.

About three years after the scare with Rusty, she heard a growl in her yard where her three dogs were playing. About 20 yards from the house, she spotted a coyote a few feet away from Sydney, a 9-pound miniature dachshund. Once again, she screamed and the coyote ran.
Rusty’s coyote encounter was in the spring and Sydney’s was in late summer. Both were during the day, which caught Ms. Meyers off guard because her research showed that coyotes are most likely to hunt at dawn and dusk.

While the dachshund incidents were in a rural setting, Deborah Miller-Gurchak, who lives in a suburban Peters neighborhood, has seen two coyotes regularly in her yard and driveway.

“One ran right at me. It was frightening,” she said. “I’ve seen them very close to the house, staring at the windows.”

Ms. Miller-Gurchak has changed the way she cares for her four Shetland sheepdogs, each weighing 20-35 pounds. They’re never unattended in the yard. A professional dog trainer, she advises friends and clients to adopt the same policy.

Her family and neighbors scare coyotes away from their houses with loud noises such as those made by fog horns and by banging pots and pans together.

Coyotes are thought to be in every county in Pennsylvania, according to the game commission, including cities and densely populated suburbs.

In southwest Pennsylvania, there are occasional reports of coyotes killing small calves and young lambs, but Mr. Fazi says his office has no reports of pets being killed. However, as Ms. Meyers noted, there is no central reporting center that collects data on pets that are chased, attacked, injured or killed.

In Pennsylvania, coyotes can be hunted and trapped all year, but a state license is required to do so. Many local communities have laws that would prohibit discharging firearms. 

“Coyotes are smart and you really have to know your stuff” to shoot or trap one, Mr. Fazi said.
Deer and hawks also can pose dangers.

In the spring, does bed down their fawns and often leave them alone in yards for hours while they forage for food, said Paul D. Curtis, a wildlife biologist/ecologist and professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Last summer I had a fawn 15 feet from my door,” he said.

Several years ago, three dogs were chased and kicked or stomped by does in the Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon areas, according to the emergency room staff at VCA Castle Shannon Animal Hospital.

In January, a 4-pound Yorkshire terrier in its backyard was picked up by a red-tailed hawk. When the owner screamed, the hawk dropped the dog some 15 feet to the ground. 

Does sometimes attack dogs that they think are threatening their fawns, Mr. Curtis said.

Deer running through windows are another matter. They’re usually bucks, Mr. Curtis said. “We think they see their reflection, think it’s another buck, so they attack.” Sometimes they’re just confused, like a buck that recently wandered close to a building on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, N.Y.

“It ran into a bunch of people and it turned and bolted,” Mr. Curtis said. “Their eyesight isn’t that good and it ran through a window.”

It happens once or twice a year, on the campus that is home to about 100 wild deer. Mr. Curtis is called because he has a rifle with tranquilizer darts and he knows how to use them.

What deer leave behind also can be a hazard. Feces is smelly and is an unattractive nuisance, but whether it is harmful if eaten by dogs and other pets remains to be determined. Justin Brown, who has a doctorate in veterinary pathology, said more research is needed. Mr. Brown is a wildlife veterinarian for the state game commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.

Deer and other wildlife often have intestinal parasites or what some would call “worms.” The worms and their larvae can be excreted in feces, but dogs, cats and people will not get worms from the feces of deer and other wildlife, he said. 

Another common summer concern is rabies.

The Allegheny County Health Department tested 819 dead animals for rabies in 2014 and found 14 that had the disease.  Of the 217 animals checked for rabies so far this year, three tested positive, said Sharon Silvestri, chief of the health department’s infectious disease program.

It “varies widely” whether local police departments or animal control agencies are willing and able to help with a potentially rabid animal, she said, especially if the animal is alive and acting aggressively.

Linda Wilson Fuoco is  the Post-Gazette’s Pet Tales columnist. or 412-263-1953.

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