Free at last! Six months after a rabid skunk attack at Mountain Green Farm in Washington left one puppy dead and landed her siblings in a high-security, double-fenced lockdown, eight purebred Brittany spaniel pups raced through a finally open gate and leapt into the arms of Ashleigh and Alex Sharp VII (this reporter’s dad).
Six months ago, before they were sentenced instead to 180 days of isolation in a grassy barnyard, the whole litter was nearly put down. When the skunk that bit one of the puppies turned out to have been rabid, the Sharps faced a heart-wrenching decision: Either euthanize the five-week-old litter immediately, or build a double-fenced enclosure and quarantine the puppies together for 180 days, during which their only physical human contact would come from veterinarians and public health officials there to check for signs of the deadly and contagious disease.
Some experts warned Ashleigh and Alex Sharp that isolated dogs could develop a pack mentality and become difficult to handle. And the cost of feeding, vaccinating and housing eight dogs for six months would obviously be high. They were also told that if one of them did develop rabies symptoms during that six months, the quarantine/euthanization nightmare would begin again. And in six months, they wondered, would people even want them? The logical choice was to put the dogs down.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Ashleigh said, looking back to that Saturday in August when she called Rose Hill Veterinary in Washington to call off the euthanization. The “pardon” was costly enough: $1,200 in vaccinations for the puppies, $500 to $600 for the fences, and about $40 per week for Joy Special Meal dog food from the Rappahannock Farmers Co-op – not to mention the $10,000 worth of rabies shots Ashleigh herself endured because she’d been exposed to the skunk. But the Sharps, relieved to have made it to the finish line (and that six of the dogs have already been claimed), don’t regret their decision.
At five weeks old, the American Kennel Club-certified Brittanys were just days from being picked up by their owners-to-be. When a skunk tunnelled under the door to their sleeping stable and bit one of the females, those plans changed. (But Ashleigh noted that four of the original buyers “stuck by their dogs” and waited out the quarantine, because they were attracted to the bloodlines of the breeding pair.)
Fast-forward six months, to Rose Hill vet Tom Massie Jr. checking on the quarantined pups one last time.
“The big worry was, are they just gonna be a feral pack of dogs when they get out?” said Massie, who gave all eight a clean bill of health last Friday. “But these look and act to me like normal six-month-old puppies. We’ll see how they are with adapting.
“It’s the breed that helps,” he added, noting that his last dog was a Brittany named Delaney, who rode shotgun in his Rose Hill truck for 14 years. “Brittany spaniels are bird hunting dogs. They’re not aggressive and they’re not fighters. Plus they’re really an affectionate breed.”
Massie thinks the 50-square-meter barnyard pen that Alex and Ashleigh built allowed the puppies healthy space to grow.
“The facility is simple, and they have plenty of room to express themselves,” he said. “They have a covered stable to sleep in and a barn foundation to pal around in. Ashleigh and Alex encourage play, and they worked hard to keep people the center of their lives.”
Environmental-health specialist Medge Carter with the Virginia Health Department, based in Washington, said she respects the couple’s decision to quarantine.
“That was a really tough choice,” said Carter, who’d sent the skunk to Richmond for rabies testing and autopsy last August. She also frequently checked on the pups and made sure the facility was built to standards. “I’m happy they made the choice that they did, and made it work so well; other people usually decide differently. And though the puppies didn’t get much human contact these past six months, they had each other.”
The Sharps said that all the work was worth it, and that they enjoyed watching the pups at an age that most breeders don’t usually witness. When the dogs thought no one was watching, they napped on top of each other, they worked together to climb doors into the barn foundation and raced full speed around the worn perimeter of the barnyard.
“I felt very strongly that we give them all individual identities, by naming them and calling each by name when we were feeding them or watching them,” Ashleigh said, noting that she and Alex are leaning toward keeping the unclaimed pup for themselves, to grow up with mama dog Dottie.
“People getting these dogs are lucky to have missed out on the chewing phase,” Alex said. “And as for us, with them having their own space, we haven’t picked up a single turd in six months. It could be a good thing to miss out on a lot of the puppy stuff if they’re living in your house.”
The Sharps agree that it was a remarkable experience watching the five-week-old furballs develop individual personalities: Teaka the clever one; Hank the tank; Cindy the sweetheart.
“The striking thing for me: how much their personalities develop over six months,” Alex said. “They were all pretty much the same at five weeks.”
Ashleigh and Alex said they owe thanks to Carter, Massie and Rose Hill vets Betty Myers and Kim Coles, the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, the Farmers Coop and their Harris Hollow neighbors, for supporting them throughout the process. Without their help, they said, this would not have been possible.
“Rabies is a big deal,” said Rose Hill veterinarian Tom Massie. “Rabies is here, it’s not new, it’s not going away. If you have animals, make sure they’re vaccinated. These puppies were too young to be vaccinated, but had they been vaccinated beforehand, they’d only need a booster shot and wouldn’t have needed to have been quarantined for six months.”
The Harris Hollow skunk was the last animal rabies case of three reported last year in Rappahannock County, at a time when state authorities reported a slight rise in cases statewide. The county rarely sees more than one or two cases a year, but last year was the first time that all of its cases involved skunks (previous cases most often were raccoons or foxes).
Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes.
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms.
Risks to pets: Any animal bitten or scratched by either a wild, carnivorous mammal or a bat that is not available for testing should be regarded as having been exposed to rabies.
Unvaccinated dogs, cats and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately. If the owner is unwilling to have this done, the animal should be placed in strict isolation for six months and vaccinated one month before being released.
Animals with expired vaccinations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Dogs and cats that are currently vaccinated are kept under observation for 45 days.
Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area . . .
. . . However, from 1985 through 1994, groundhogs accounted for 86 percent of the 368 cases of rabies among rodents reported to CDC. Woodchucks or groundhogs (Marmota monax) are the only rodents that may be frequently submitted to state health department because of a suspicion of rabies.