By Bob Dispensa
You may have seen this before: a raccoon staggering around in the daytime, walking in circles and bumping into things. What on earth is wrong? Is there anything you can do?
What you may have witnessed was the effects of a distemper infection. Distemper is a viral disease of carnivorous animals caused by a paramyxovirus. Related paramyxoviruses cause mumps, measles, respiratory syncytial disease and parainfluenza (including croup) in humans. Humans cannot get distemper, and the disease is uncommon among wild animals.
Distemper comes in two types - canine and feline. Both are highly infectious for certain carnivores, and especially deadly to the young. Some wild animals (raccoons, weasels, ferrets, skunks, mink, otters and badgers) may be infected with both. Because of differing outcomes and susceptible animals, we will look at the two types separately.
Canine distemper is mostly found in dog-relatives - wolves, coyotes, foxes and dogs, plus those mentioned above. Infections can be found year round. Because the virus is cold resistant, most domestic animal cases occur in fall and winter. Most wild animal cases are found in spring and summer in juveniles, since the young are more susceptible than adults. Viruses are transmitted through aerosol droplets (sneezing, coughing), direct contact and, rarely, contact with contaminated objects. The virus is usually inhaled, occasionally ingested. Canine distemper is not necessarily fatal.
Feline distemper affects bobcat, domestic cats and lynx, along with raccoons, mink, weasels, ferrets, otters, badgers and skunks. Transmission is mostly by infected body secretions/excretions, and possibly by fleas, flies and other insects. The virus is inhaled or ingested, and the disease is often fatal.
Symptoms are many and varied, but often include neurological disturbances. Infected animals may show aggressiveness, loss of fear of humans, disorientation, lack of alertness, convulsive or uncoordinated movements, aimless wandering and unkempt appearance. Sometimes nasal and eye discharge is present. Due to digestive system damage, infected animals may show excessive thirst.
Animals that exhibit these symptoms should be avoided. Chances of helping them are extremely small, and if the disease is not distemper, handling the animal could be quite dangerous. Distemper virus does not effect humans, but confusion with rabies is of concern, since it has many of the same symptoms as distemper. Other diseases may mimic distemper: tularemia, listeriosis, histoplasmosis, tetanus, poisoning and some parasitic diseases (like raccoon brain nematode).
Keep yourself and pets away from suspicious wild animals. Do not try to approach or handle such animals. Leave them alone and leave the area. If you or your unvaccinated pet has had direct contact or been bitten by a diseased animal, you should react as if rabies is involved, just to be safe. Distemper is harmless to humans, but rabies can be deadly. Capture the wild animal if doing so will not expose you to danger, or kill the animal without damaging the head. Make sure you let the conservation officer, police or sheriff department know if you have killed the animal. Call Animal Control at 449-7491 and they will test the animal for rabies. If you cannot capture or kill the wild animal, your pet will have to be quarantined or you may have to be evaluated for rabies exposure.
It is much easier and safer to just keep your distance from suspicious -acting animals. If they’re not afraid of you, you should be afraid of them.