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Rabies alert issued for east Pasco County

Health officials issued a rabies alert Tuesday for east Pasco, despite expressing concern about the time and expense posed by a similar strategy last year.

"We went crazy last year with animal pickups and with all the work involved," said Billie Pryce, epidemiology director for the Pasco County Health Department. "But we would be working in the public's best interest."

The alert applies to all of Pasco east of U.S. 41. That includes the Dade City and Wesley Chapel areas, where five animals have tested positive for rabies since March.

In the most recent case, on June 9 in Wesley Chapel, a rabid fox attacked a 22-month-old boy. When his mother tried to intervene, she also was bitten. They are undergoing a series of post-exposure shots, Pryce said.

Pryce met with veterinarians and other health officials Tuesday to discuss the rabies alert. E. Gordon Ulrey, Pasco County Animal Control director, said that he recognized the potential for difficulty, but that safety concerns must take precedence.

"The county is prepared to go as far as it has to for the public's health and safety," he said. "You call it, I'll do it."

Dr. Marc J. Yacht, public health director, said the time and expense will be worth it to avoid further rabies cases.

"Whatever it costs to prevent the cases, it costs more if you don't," he said.

The alert requires that all pets within the specified area be confined to the owner's premises. All dogs and cats caught roaming will be impounded and released to owners only upon payment of impounding fee and board. Also, if an impounded pet does not have a current rabies vaccination or if the owner does not produce a valid vaccination certificate within five days, the animal will be vaccinated at the shelter.

Adoption from animal shelters of previously free-roaming dogs, cats or other animals that have no proof of rabies vaccination is prohibited for the duration of the alert.

Warnings will be issued for unvaccinated animals until the end of July, Ulrey said. After that, citations will be given, with fines ranging from $32 to $500.

Pet owners in the alert area are urged to check their pets' vaccination status. County ordinances require that all pets over the age of 4 months be vaccinated by a licensed veterinarian.

Ulrey said he plans to schedule several low-cost vaccination clinics in Pasco. The first is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 11 at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, 5401 Land O'Lakes Blvd.

To report a bite or scratch, from either wild or domestic animals, call Pasco County Animal Control at (813) 849-3730 in New Port Richey, (813) 996-4404 in Land O'Lakes and (904) 567-0234 in Dade City. A recording will refer callers to a special emergency number after hours and on weekends, Ulrey said.

For information about the rabies alert, call the Pasco County Health Department at (813) 869-3900, ext. 176.