Evolving Rabies Virus Jumping Species in Northern Arizona

Keep your pets close to home, because there's a new strain of rabies in Arizona -- and it's spreading.

Known as "Big Brown Bat," the virus appears to have mutated and is jumping species. Skunks and foxes are getting it -- without having had any contact with bats.

"Usually it'll dead end in the other animal," says Carol Chambers, a professor of wildlife ecology at Northern Arizona University. "In this case it didn't -- it has evolved into a strain that can persist in animals and be transfered from skunk to skunk."

The scariest part of the virus? Animals don't need to be bit to get it. It's appears to be spread socially.

Still, it doesn't look like we're going to be seeing an overwhelming epidemic anytime soon. According to Chambers, rabies has always been a pretty rare disease, and less than 1 percent of bats in Northern Arizona are infected. And she doesn't think there's any chance it'll spread socially to humans.

But she is worried about the safety of bats. Sometimes people get scared by rabies and start killing them off, she says.

"We're very concerned about people misunderstanding bats and doing retribution killings," she says. "Bats do a lot of good things, too."

Still, it might be a good idea to keep Fido indoors for a while.

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Malia Politzer
Contact: Malia Politzer