Watch for sick raccoons

I don’t care what your calendar is trying to get you to believe–spring is in the air.  You can tell by all the pollen and love bugs.  Ugh.  Here at Peace River Wildlife Center we have a couple other indicators of seasonal change.

We have been seeing an abundance of baby mammals:  Squirrels, raccoons, and bunnies.  And of course rats.  The rats always end up at my house for home care.  No one loves the ratties like I do.  They are one of my favourite species to raise because they remind me of my daughter.

While some people (including my daughter) may take offense to a remark like that, I mean it in the most sincerely flattering way.  They grow up quickly, are intelligent, and use a litter box.  My daughter didn’t actually use a litter box, but she was an “easy keeper.”  She was a healthy baby, slept through the night, and potty trained early.

Its only a matter of time (weeks, or perhaps days) before the baby songbird floodgates open and we are up to our eyeballs in that chaos.  In the meantime, there is another unfortunate sign of spring we are experiencing in Charlotte County and the surrounding areas.

A very sick baby raccoon

We have had many raccoons admitted with neurological symptoms, and lots more calls from concerned citizens about raccoons acting strangely or found dead in their neighborhoods.  Of course, the first thing people worry about is rabies.  And while that disease is something to be wary about, there haven’t been any confirmed reports of rabies in wildlife in this area recently.

The more likely scenario is distemper.  Raccoons are susceptible to the viruses that cause both canine and, less frequently, feline distemper.  Unvaccinated pets can contract the disease by exposure to body fluids from a sick individual, even without direct exposure.  The viral particles can be airborne through a sneeze or can be passed in blood or urine.  Unvaccinated pets can also be the cause of disease in wildlife.  Since most wildlife has no immunity, distemper can devastate that population quickly.

Canine distemper is a virus in the morbillivirus family, related to measles in people.  Feline “distemper” is actually a parvovirus.  Viruses, unlike bacteria that readily infect anyone who comes into contact with them, are generally species-specific.  So, you won’t get distemper from your dog and your cat won’t catch a cold from you.  Raccoons are genetically similar enough to dogs and cats that they are susceptible to viral diseases of both those species.  Before we release any raccoon that has been in our care, we vaccinate for both canine and feline viruses, as well as rabies.

Raccoons with canine distemper can present with many different symptoms.  The virus can affect the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory system, or the central nervous system.  It can even affect the conjunctival membranes of the eyes.  The dehydration, weight loss, and staggering gait can be the same as an animal suffering from rabies.  People are advised to avoid approaching any sick wild animal, especially a rabies vector species mammal.  In this area that includes raccoons, bats, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes.

Unlike most viruses, rabies can infect people as well as any other warm-blooded mammal and is an untreatable, fatal disease.  Definitely not something to take lightly.

Distemper is also untreatable and often fatal to our dogs and to wildlife.  A few simple steps can help ensure the safety of your pets.  Vaccination for this disease is highly effective.  Potential risk exposures include dog parks, lanais, even you own backyard.  It is recommended that you not feed pets or wildlife (including birds) outside your home, as it will attract raccoons, especially during times when contagious diseases are running rampant.

PRWC volunteer Linda Oneill spots a healthy raccoon in a tree in broad daylight

Just seeing a raccoon out during the day is not an indication that it is sick.  Nursing mothers and juveniles are commonly wandering about looking for food and fresh water during daylight hours.  Sick raccoons often have sparse coats and sores on their skin.  They are usually thin and ataxic (walking with a drunken gait.)  If you see a raccoon that you suspect is sick, call PRWC (941-637-3830) or you r local animal control (941-833-5690 in Charlotte County, 941-861-9500 in Sarasota County, and 863-993-4855 in Desoto County.)

Natural cycles of disease are common, and canine distemper usually rears its ugly head during spring, when babies are born and more susceptible to illness.  Most years a few raccoons will get infected and die.  Every 5-7 years the disease seems to devastate the wild population.  This year looks like it may be a bad one, so if your pets are due for their vaccines, call your vet and put that on your calendar.

And while you’re at it, go ahead and scratch out that “first day of spring” nonsense on March 20th.  According to the wildlife of Charlotte County, spring has already sprung.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM