ALBION — A rabid beagle that died in Albion three weeks after it tangled with a raccoon was the first dog diagnosed with rabies in Maine since 2003.

The beagle bit owner Larry Hubbard before it died, a scenario that state health officials said often happens when an unvaccinated domestic animal contracts the fatal disease.

The beagle, Duke, had no apparent injuries after a daylight raccoon attack in the yard of their home on Barnes Road in mid-July, Larry’s wife, Jeannette Hubbard, said. When Larry Hubbard hit the raccoon with a shovel, it ran into the woods and disappeared.

A sick Duke bit his owner more than a week later but it wasn’t severe, Jeannette said.

“He didn’t bite him. He nipped at him,” she said. “It broke the skin a little bit.”

Hubbard said that Duke had a sweet and gentle disposition before contracting the disease; health officials said that the established trusting relationship between pet and owner is one reason owners get bitten.

“An unvaccinated pet gets exposed and then sick and then turns on its owner,” state epidemiologist Stephen Sears said.

Sears said the event highlights the importance of vaccinating pets, a message the Maine Center for Disease Control is stressing as World Rabies Day, this Friday, approaches.

Sears said that vaccinations are the best method to keep pets and owners safe.

“If they keep their vaccines up to date on their animals, even if their animal is exposed to rabies, it is very unlikely to get their animals,” he said. “It’s good protection.”

The next best alternative, keeping one’s pets indoors at all times, is not practical for most pet owners, he said.

People don’t vaccinate their animals for various reasons, Sears said.

“Similarly to getting ourselves vaccinated, sometimes we just forget,” he said.

He said that people sometimes don’t take the time to find out whether a newly acquired pet is vaccinated.

Jeannette Hubbard said that expense and time were both issues that discouraged them from vaccinating their Duke.

“We just never got down there to do it,” she said.

Their new dog, a pug puppy named Shadow, is scheduled to be vaccinated in about two weeks, as soon as it is old enough, she said.

Sears said that the relative rarity of rabies cases in humans nationwide is a testament to the success of aggressive public awareness and containment campaigns.

People like Larry Hubbard, who is undergoing treatment, are aware that when they have been exposed within 10 days, can be successfully treated with a combination of immunoglobulin and vaccination shots. The awareness is one reason that only about a half-dozen people contract rabies nationwide each year. In Maine, no human rabies cases have been documented since the 1930s.

But Sears said that the only way to keep the virus at bay is through “vigilance and diligence.”

A mild winter led to an increased number of rabies cases this year, Sears said. There were 65 cases in 2011, while there have been 72 so far this year. Skunks, raccoons and bats are the most commonly affected animals.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

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