In the first two-and-a-half months of 2011, six cases of the rabies virus have been confirmed in Erath County.

"This is by far the worst year we have had with rabies in 10 years," Stephenville animal control officer Scott Whiteley said.

The latest case was reported Thursday when a skunk that was found on McNeil Street tested positive for rabies.

There were only four local cases reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) in 2010.

With more cases already recorded in the first three months of the year, Stephenville Animal Control is urging residents to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Skunks are the only animals that have been reported to have rabies.

"There are an abundance of skunks in Stephenville right now," Whiteley said.

Skunks are currently in mating season which increases the threat for widespread rabies outbreaks as litters of the striped stinkers are born and their numbers increase. The dry, warm weather also creates an ideal environment for skunk survival, according to Whiteley.

Whiteley also warns the virus is easily transmittable and is not only carried by skunks.

"Every skunk we have found has had rabies, but bats, dogs - even foxes and coyotes - can carry the virus right now," he said.

With the "abundance" of skunks in the area, homeowners should take precautions to ensure the animals cannot infect others.

All areas underneath homes, storage buildings and other structures should be secured to prevent access, since many animals - such as skunks - escape the warmer daytime temperatures by crawling under homes, according to Whiteley.

Residents should also keep their pets secured behind a fence that prevents other animals from entering.

"If your animal is at-large, the likelihood of infection increases drastically," advised Whiteley.

Animals that have rabies can transmit it to any other mammal - including humans. Though there are post-exposure vaccines available, the antidote may come too late.

"Once there are signs of symptoms, it is too late. It is 100 percent fatal," Whiteley said.

Rabies incubation periods can be very unpredictable, but 10 days is all it takes for an animal to begin transmitting the disease.

The virus is spread through the saliva of an infected animal through bites, open wounds - even small cuts on fingers.

"Even those things that seems rather insignificant can be a receptor for the virus," Whiteley warned.

Once an animal tests positive for rabies there are two options: isolation or euthanisia.

But vaccinations don't always offer full protection.

If an animal is infected and the owner has current vaccination records, it must be isolated and have no contact with people or animals for a minimum of 45 days. Without up-to-date shot records, the isolation time doubles to 90 days.

Animals do not always show signs of aggression once infected.

"They can appear playful, and love to lick, which spreads the virus more ," said Whiteley.

Stephenville Animal Control officers seek out infected animals to ensure that rabies is not further spread and take proper action against animals, including family pets.

"When it comes to rabies we have to consider human life first," said Whiteley.

For questions or to report a potential rabies case, contact the animal control department at 918-1200.