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Rabies scare in Michigan prompted by an unusual pet: Skunks

Michigan health officials are warning residents about potential rabies exposures stemming from skunks kept as pets in the state.

A skunk with ties to an Attica, Michigan, skunk breeder tested positive for rabies in late November, and authorities don't know how or when the animal was infected.

“If you have purchased one of these skunks from these facilities in the last six months, we are urging you to contact your veterinarian to have the animal examined," said Natasha Bagdasarian, a chief medical executive with the state health department.

Can you have a skunk as a pet?

Rose's Skunks, a breeder the rabid skunk was allegedly connected to, says on its Facebook page that it's been breeding "quality domestic skunks" for purchase for over 25 years.

The niche exotic pets are illegal in many states, although there are few authoritative sources online tracking laws in different parts of the country.

In Michigan, residents can only have pet skunks if they were bred in captivity, and only if they have a permit issued by the state. The license is called a "permit to hold wild game captive," Michigan's Department of Natural Resources website says.

“Where skunks are concerned, it’s illegal to take them from the wild for purposes of rehabilitation or to import them from another state or country," said Jason Haines, the law enforcement chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Domesticated skunks are descented when they are between two and five weeks of age, according to PBS's Nature.

Skunks have been bred in captivity for over 70 years, according to the program, and "are known to be quite docile and loving."

In Attica, Michigan, Rose's Skunks advertises descented baby skunks for sale, including albino varities.

"We do all our own descenting so the come ready and fresh as a daisy for you," one post from 2021 reads.

What happened with skunks in Michigan?

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, a skunk purchased from Countryside Feather Farm/Rose’s Skunks in Attica or through a Chesterfield Township/New Baltimore seller connected to Rose’s Skunks tested positive for rabies on Nov. 29.

"If the skunk you purchased is showing signs of illness or has died, please contact your veterinarian and health care provider immediately as you may be at risk for rabies and require treatment," Bagdasarian said.

It's possible anyone who purchased a skunk from one of those facilities in the last six months may be exposed to rabies, a department statement says. It can take months for the rabies virus to show up in a skunk after the animal first encounters it, Bagdasarian said.

The skunk seller connected to Rose's Skunks could have been mixing domesticated skunks with wild skunks, which could have led to the infection, according to an investigation conducted by a local country's animal control.

"It is possible rehabilitated wild skunks were co-mingled with bred and captive skunks," authorities said.

To avoid rabies and other harmful exposure to viruses found in the wild, experts warn people to not engage with wildlife, vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies and follow these additional protocols.

Do skunks get rabies often?

Skunks are one of several wild animal species that commonly carry rabies, according to the Humane Society.

Skunks, foxes, raccoons and bats are "primary carriers" of the virus, which is found in mammals. It's transmitted through bites, scratches and saliva from an infected animal, and it's deadly in humans once someone becomes ill.

Background Why rabies is dangerous to humans, pets

Skunks in the wild may be rabid if you notice them exhibiting limb paralysis, bold or unprovoked aggression, disorientation, uncharacteristic tameness, or if you see them circling in place, according to the Humane Society.

Rabies is a virus that affects the central nervous system. It is fatal for humans if contracted, but can be preventable thanks to vaccinations and appropriate medical care after potential exposures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contributing: Emily DeLetter, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rabies found in pet skunk in Michigan