I must admit, as a longtime dog owner, my thoughts about rabies begin and end with the vaccination certificate I need to get our beloved golden retriever Fairbanks’ license renewed each year down at the Buxton Town Hall.

That changed last week when an email landed in my inbox from Vida Fasulo, who lives just across the Saco River on Country Club Road in Hollis — also known as my and Fairbanks’ dog-walking route.

“I think it is evident that we have a rabies cluster and that we need help getting intelligent information to people,” Fasulo wrote. “What do you think?”

I thought I’d like to hear more.

It all started on Dec. 28. Fasulo, her husband, their three children (including a daughter who was nine months pregnant), their daughter’s boyfriend and a Korean exchange student currently staying with the family were enjoying the holidays around the wood stove when all hell broke loose outside their secluded home.

The family’s two dogs — Gracie, an Airedale mix, and Fiyero, a black Lab — were outside. Judging from the noise, Fasulo thought at first the dogs were annihilating the neighbor’s cat.

“It was the weirdest sound,” she recalled. “This thing was screaming this high-pitched sound. I’d never heard anything like it before.”

That thing, it turned out, wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. And by the time Fasulo’s husband, Stephen, got outside to investigate, it was dead in the driveway.

Within a few minutes, Gracie and Fiyero were back inside, basking in hugs and concern from the entire family. Then Gracie trotted over to Jill, the very pregnant daughter, and licked her hand.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s probably not good. That mouth just killed the fox,'” Fasulo said.

Fasulo called the local veterinarian, who told her to put on a pair of rubber gloves and immediately bathe both dogs in case the fox was rabid.

Also, the vet said, make sure anyone who had touched the dogs — and possibly the fox’s contaminated saliva — didn’t have any breaks in their skin.

Great. From the hangnails on Fasulo’s hands to the exposed scrape on her son Steve’s upper arm, everyone had some kind of nick or another.

And so it began.

The dogs had been vaccinated for rabies last summer, but Fasulo took them in the next day for boosters.

The dead fox, meanwhile, was sent by the local animal control officer to the Maine Center for Disease Control in Augusta. Late on Dec. 30, the center called Fasulo to confirm what she already feared — the fox was indeed rabid and all seven people in the house that day needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

Actually, two hospitals. When Mercy Hospital in Portland ran out of rabies immune globulin after administering 10 injections to Fasulo’s husband and 11 to her son (the overall dosage is determined by body size and weight), the rest of the family headed for nearby Maine Medical Center for their shots.

It’s not a pleasant regimen. In addition to the multiple globulin shots administered all over the body, the treatment calls for four rabies vaccine injections over a period of 14 days.

Nor is it cheap. While Fasulo expects the family’s health insurance to cover the bulk of the cost, their out-of-pocket expenses probably will run well into the thousands of dollars. (The price tag will be even higher for the exchange student and the boyfriend, Fasulo said, because neither has health insurance.)

End of story? If only.

A week ago Saturday, Fasulo woke up to the sound of the dogs barking outside (one of the kids had let them out). She got up and looked out the kitchen window to see another fox, also dead, sprawled across the driveway. This one not only reeked to high heaven of skunk, but also had a mouthful of porcupine quills.

And yes, the Center for Disease Control confirmed a day or two later, this one also was rabid.

Hence the news release from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services issued Friday under the headline “Warmer Weather May Be Cause of Increase in Rabid Animals.”

The numbers are enough to make you lock and bolt the door: In all of 2011, Maine had 65 confirmed cases of dead animals with rabies — which is actually a form of encephalitis that attacks the brain. Only one of those occurred that entire month of January.

This January alone, the statewide tally is already up to 11 — seven raccoons, two skunks, one cat and the Fasulos’ second fox. (Their first fox is included in the 2011 statistics.)

“We clearly have seen more rabies this January that we have in the past,” said Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist, in an interview Friday. And while the cause may or may not be our unusually mild temperatures this winter, he added, “the stats sort of speak for themselves.”

Don Hoenig, the state veterinarian, said in a separate interview that rabies has migrated north into southern and central Maine since a group of hunters down in Virginia (he calls them “redneck wildlife biologists”) imported a passel of raccoons from Florida back in the 1970s so they’d have more to shoot at. At least a few of those raccoons, it turned out, were rabid.

“That particular strain has moved up the East Coast in the 30-plus years since then,” Hoenig said. “It’s just stunningly stupid for people to do that kind of thing.”

Not to mention scary. Hoenig and Sears have both heard of cases in which rabid critters, as vicious as they are unpredictable, actually entered homes through cellar windows or cat doors before being “dispatched” by local animal control officers.

Fortunately, it’s been more than a half century since anyone in Maine actually died of rabies, which is almost always fatal if not treated within a few days of exposure. But down in Massachusetts, a 63-year-old man on Cape Cod passed away last fall after contracting the disease from a bat — that state’s first fatality since 1935.

(Bats, by the way, are a whole other nightmare: Hoenig says if you awaken to find one in your bedroom, you should seek medical advice and possible treatment in case it bit you with its tiny, needle-like teeth while you were sleeping.)

So now that we’re all afraid to venture beyond the front porch, what can we do to calm our jitters?

Two things, advise Sears, Hoenig and, last but not least, Fasulo.

First, if you’re not sure of when your pet last got a rabies shot, find out.

Up-to-date rabies vaccinations and boosters are required in order to obtain a mandatory Maine dog license. But as Hoenig notes, little more than half of the estimated 285,000 dogs in Maine are licensed — and there’s a good chance many of the 125,000 scofflaws out there are way behind on their shots.

“And who knows about cats?” Hoenig added. “They’re required to be vaccinated but not licensed, so we have no idea for that species.”

Beyond prevention, if you think you or your pet may have been exposed to a rabid animal, go to the Center for Disease Control website (http://1.usa.gov/ywBvGV) for advice on what to do next.

As for me and Fairbanks?

We’re staying on our side of the river.


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