Skunks and Rabies

It is hard to overcome set-in-stone misconceptions, such as "all skunks are born with rabies" or "all skunks carry rabies." For owners of domestic pen-raised pet skunks this misconception can mean the death of their much-loved pet.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved rabies vaccines for dogs, cats, and ferrets, the Department has not approved a vaccine for the treatment of skunks or other "exotic" pets. In many states, it is either illegal to own a pet skunk or the owner must be licensed.

In the wild, skunks, like other species, can contract rabies. When they do, they die. But skunks have been raised in captivity in the United States for well over 200 years, mostly for the fur trade, but increasingly for the pet trade. Despite this, if a pen-raised pet skunk bites someone, rather than commit the animal to a quarantine period, the skunk is killed in order to test it for rabies. Examining the brain is the only way to tell if the animal has been infected.

Until last year this was the case for ferrets as well. But with an estimated five to nine million ferret owners in the United States, Merial, LTD, a company that develops and sells veterinary pharmaceuticals tested its Imrab vaccine (used for both dogs and cats) on ferrets. At the same time, the Rabies Compendium Group that studies incubation periods of rabies in animals, established an incubation period for ferrets. With that, Imrab was given USDA approval for use on ferrets.

Unfortunately for pet skunk owners, according to Dr. Zack Mills of Merial, the same testing has not been done for skunks and Merial has no plans to do them. Such development for USDA approval, says Mills, includes much expensive long-term study and testing. The company has also recently been given approval for an oral vaccine for use on wild raccoons. The question for both ferrets and raccoons, says Mills, is the risk of exposure.

On internet chat rooms skunk owners discuss the issue and many have had their veterinarians immunize their pets with Imrab. Mills says such use is up to the veterinarian and the pet owner and that without USDA approval such use is considered "off-label," meaning that in the eyes of animal control officers, the animal is still considered unvaccinated. Since the USDA and the CDC do not recognize any incubation period for rabies in skunks, no quarantine period is considered foolproof.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta states that there is no such thing as a carrier state of rabies in any mammal, including skunks, meaning that the animals cannot have the virus in their saliva and remain free of rabies symptoms for long periods of time. Some studies have found that the virus occurs in saliva at or slightly before onset of clinical signs and persists for several days (maximum six days). These studies also indicate that clinical signs of rabies in skunks can last from 18 days before the animal dies.

If you have a domestic skunk and he bites someone, you will have to surrender your pet for testing. For pet owners this is not acceptable. With an estimate of some 6 million skunks owned by fanciers in the United States (many of whom can't admit they own skunks because of state laws) they feel strongly that laws need to be changed for the well being of their pets, as well as for their own peace of mind. They feel enough is known about incubation times for rabies in skunks to make quarantine a better solution than beheading. On a Web site,, they have begun a petition to have state and federal laws changed.