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Raccoons, distemper and dogs – LexBlog


Dead raccoons have gotten a lot of attention in Toronto lately, for various reasons. Many urban areas have abundant raccoon populations, and when you have lots of an animal species, you have gerater risk for outbreaks. A distemper outbreak is playing at least part of the role (maybe a big part) in Toronto’s dead raccoon issue. That’s bad for the raccoons and people who have to see them (not to mention the overworked agency that gets called to pick up dead raccoons, while also addressing sick and injured animals of all species).

Beyond the gross factor of seeing dead raccoons, there’s fear about infectious disease risks from exposure to raccoon carcasses or sick raccoons (and, don’t forget cats…..they usually get ignored).

But, what are the real risks?

  • Overall, they’re pretty limited.

Distemper in raccoons is caused by canine distemper virus, the virus that causes (unsurprisingly) distemper in dogs. It can cause serious, including fatal, disease in dogs.

Crap…so are dogs at risk?

Yes, they could get distemper from a raccoon, but the good news is that we have very effective vaccines. Distemper is included in the standard ‘core’ vaccines that all dogs should get. We typically start vaccinating puppies at 8 weeks of age and vaccinate them monthly until 16-20 weeks of age. At that point, we’re pretty confident they will be able to respond to the vaccine properly, so we normally then vaccinate a year later, then every 3 years. Distemper is extremely rare in properly vaccinated dogs. Even a dog that is overdue for vaccines is probably at very low risk of infection is they were properly vaccinated as a puppy.

How would a dog get distemper from a raccoon?

Most likely, it would occur when in un/under-vaccinated dog has direct contact with an infected raccoon. The virus is excreted in respiratory secretions and feces, but most of the risk probably comes from direct contact with the animal. Distemper virus survival hasn’t been well studied in field situations but it probably only survives for hours or a few days. If there’s sunlight, dry periods and temperature swings, that helps inactivate the virus quicker. So, we can’t dismiss the risk from indirect contact, but I’m most worried about a dog tangling directly with an infected raccoon, something that can be easy if the raccoon is sick and behaving abnormally.

What about carcasses? What’s the risk with them?

Probably not much, in terms of distemper. They’re unsightly but they probably pose limited risk because any virus on external surfaces would die fairly quickly. The longer the raccoon has been dead, the lower the risk, so delays in removing dead raccoons create more grossness than disease risk.

It’s still ideal to get rid of them as soon as is reasonable. Beyond distemper. There are various potential infectious disease risks from carcasses but overall, I’d say the overall risk is low and for distemper, it’s very low.

That said, why tempt fate and have a dog potentially exposed to various things? Regular readers will have seen various pictures of our new puppy, Ozzie. He’s (unfortunately) looking like he’s going to be one of those dogs that like to roll in disgusting things. So, job 1 is keeping him from carcasses. If he did roll on a raccoon carcass, I’d be more concerned about the smell than a disease, but I’d give him a bath (trying not to contaminate myself in the process).

Raccoons with distemper can act strangely. Do we have to worry about rabies?

Yes and no. We’re always concerned about rabies. However, we don’t have raccoon variant rabies in Toronto (as far as we know). There’s pretty good surveillance and it seems not to have made it there after its last incursion into Ontario, with raccoon rabies focused a bit further west in the Hamilton area.

The vast majority of abnormally behaving raccoons will have distemper. But, we can never completely dismiss the potential for rabies, either because raccoon rabies has snuck in or the raccoon was infected by another rabies virus strain (e.g. from bats or skunks). Therefore, it’s important to keep people and animals away from raccoons, especially those that are acting strangely.

Key take-home messages are pretty simple

  • Keep pets under control and away from wildlife, being particularly strict with un- and under-vaccinated dogs.
  • Make sure dogs are vaccinated

That’s about it. With some common sense and basic veterinary care, we can relax about canine implications of distemper in raccoons.


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