OCEAN CITY – With confirmed rabid cases is on the rise, including the most recent cases taking place in Ocean City last week, law enforcement and health agencies are urging citizens to report any kind of animal aggressive behavior.

Last week Ocean City Police Capt. Kevin Kirstein addressed a room of Worcester County public safety officials warning the mix of agencies there has been an uptick in confirmed rabies cases in the area.

“The police department is getting ready to take a much more aggressive tone towards how we are handling these incidents,” Kirstein said. “Please don’t take any chances. If you don’t know anything about rabies, it is in mammals only. Fish, reptiles, and birds can’t get it. Anything that has hair, including human beings can get it. It is 100 percent fatal in humans if you wait until the signs of the disease appear … if you have any potential contact with make sure you contact the health department. Better safe than sorry. We are on par to exceed 2009, which was our highest year ever, so it is critical.”

According to Worcester County Health Department (WCHD) Rabies Coordinator Janet Tull, as of Tuesday there has been 21 laboratory confirmed rabid cases in Worcester County. All confirmed animals were rabid raccoons, except for two foxes.

The last two cases occurred last Thursday when a dog was attacked off 94th Street and the raccoon escaped. About eight hours later, an aggressive raccoon was captured in the same area and destroyed. Animals can only be tested for rabies if destroyed. They are then sent for testing in Baltimore and that raccoon was confirmed to have carried rabies.

The other case occurred on the same day when an aggressive raccoon was captured on Route 50 in West Ocean City, was destroyed, sent for testing and confirmed to carry rabies as well.

Until 2009, there were minimal confirmed rabid cases in Worcester. Somewhere in the 10 to 15 range, Tull said. In 2009, there were 52 confirmed rabid cases.

“There is always a rise and fall with this disease, a movement, a migration from one area to the other. While we may have no more rabies in the raccoon population in Ocean City than we do out in the western more rural parts of the county, there is just more opportunity for contact. That is where the concern comes in,” Tull said. “In highly populated areas, there is much more of an opportunity for contact to occur to either our pets or to the people. So, when you know there is rabies in the population it is certainly worth noting but we are not trying to make people overly afraid, but aware. Report if you see overly aggressive animals, or raccoons, don’t let it pass by.”

Wild animals that are most susceptible to rabies are bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, groundhogs, feral cats, opossums and muskrats. Rabid wild animals may display unusual behavior such as wandering in the daytime when usually only seen at night or approaching humans or pets. Cats are the most common domestic animal to become infected with rabies, especially those kept outdoors and unvaccinated.

Citizens should immediately report any wildlife acting suspiciously to Ocean City police, specifically those animals that are showing aggressive or threatening behavior. Signs that an animal may be rabid include but are not limited to fearfulness, aggression, excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, staggering and seizures.

To minimize risk of rabies exposure to your family and pets, the health recommends vaccinating pets and keeping those vaccinations current. Rabies vaccinations (shots) have limited time of protection, so citizens should verify that their pets are currently protected.

Do not feed pets outdoors. Pet food, even the odor of it, in empty containers and on the ground draws wildlife. While looking for food is normal behavior for raccoons and foxes, particularly in the spring when there are young to be fed, these animals may return to areas they frequent if they become rabid.

Secure trash cans and dumpster lids for the same reason outlined above. Wild animals forage for food and minimizing food sources will discourage wildlife from coming to your property.

Remove strays from the community. Stray cats are of particular concern, as they are competing for food with wildlife and have more opportunity for exposure to rabid wildlife, such as raccoons. Many of the fights with raccoons go unwitnessed, and are only noted after the cat becomes rabid. Cats are the most frequently identified rabid domestic animal.

Citizens are strongly urged to report any suspicious animals that are susceptible to rabies to Ocean City police at 410-723-6600.

“We clearly don’t want people frightened. It is just that it is a disease of wild life, primarily raccoons, but any warm blooded animal can get it. That is why it is so critically important that we take steps to minimize risk…people need to know what to do,” Tull said. ““We really want people to have the tools to make good decisions. The police department is cooperating with us to try to minimize risk … we are all working together within public safety and public health.”