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The Hard Part of this Job

Healthy Raccoon Hiding in Trash

Between January 1 and today, January 11th, only ten days, we have had 11 distemper raccoon calls throughout the state of Missouri.  This is an inordinately large number for such a small period of time.  Reports have come in from Branson, Springfield, St. Louis, Earth City, Smithville, Independence, thus proving that this isn’t an isolated cell of distemper in one area.  It seems to be area-wide.  It is possible that the warm weather is bringing the raccoons out to feeding stations, trash cans, creeks and rivers, and that is a perfect opportunity for distemper to spread.  Distemper is just like a cold or flu in people, it is an airborne virus that spreads via cough, sneeze, runny nose, and it can be caught from fecal and urine exposure as well.  It can spread via water and food sources too, just like us catching something from a water fountain, or a public candy jar.  We can wash our hands often, isolate ourselves by staying home from work or school, and Lysol-ing everything we touch.  Raccoons don’t quite have that option.

The other possibility in the spike of distemper cases is the plain truth that this is mating season, and raccoons are cavorting with one another more than normal because of that.  Mating rituals can definitely provide the right circumstances for the spread of the disease.

No matter what is causing this, it is not the fun part of wildlife rehab.  Distemper causes raccoons to act as though they are drunk, aimless, and disoriented.  They will often have a wobbly walk, dragging their belly or back-end on the ground – tail never leaves the ground, and is often dirty and wet from dragging it.  Usually these calls come in at times when raccoons shouldn’t be visible at all.  If it is daytime and you see a raccoon in your area wandering around, chances are that something is wrong with that raccoon.  But it depends on what the animal looks and acts like.  If you see a raccoon in a hurry, running from one hiding place to another trying to hide from people, this may very well be a raccoon that is just fine.  On the other hand, if the raccoon you see is literally wandering around… with seemingly no purpose or destination in mind, not hiding from people or backing up at all when people or pets approach it, this is more likely to be a sick raccoon.  In Missouri & Illinois, distemper is much more common than rabies in raccoons.  We speculate that many of the roadkill raccoons seen on the side of roads are actually distemper cases.  Raccoons have always grown up with cars around.  They know the dangers of crossing a road.  They’re smart animals, and they know better than to sit still when

Healthy Raccoon Laying Low During Daytime

headlights are coming their way.  If a raccoon is hit by a car, it makes us think that something was wrong with the animal that made it not react to the car as he normally would.

Here is a video of a raccoon that has distemper, to give you an idea of what to look for.

Distemper is often not curable or treatable, depending on what stage it has progressed to before the report comes in.  We have personally never received a call on a distemper raccoon that was in an early enough stage to even attempt treatment of any kind.  Usually by the time the public notices the raccoon, it is very sick, towards the end of the disease.  It will eventually kill the animal, as the disease progresses, the brain swells, causes increasingly severe seizures.  The brain swelling can lead to blindness as well, causing the animal to just lie down wherever it is, starving and cold until it dies.  It can take as little as 10 days for distemper to run its course or it could last weeks or months, with varying symptoms.  After the 3rd day of the disease it is contagious to others, so the longer the raccoon lives with the disease, the more it is being spread.  Because of the neurological impairment, female raccoons with distemper become extremely easy to mate with.  A female with distemper may end up mating with several partners a day, spreading the disease to each male.

If you ever see a raccoon with any of these symptoms, DO NOT approach it.  Distemper has similar symptoms to rabies, and it is not worth a chance.  Both diseases can cause hypersensitivity to touch meaning that if you as much as touch that raccoon lightly with a broom or a stick, it may react as though you kicked it and come after you.  Please call the Wildlife Hotline at (636) 492-1610 or 1-800-482-7950 as soon as possible to get advice on how to secure the raccoon until someone can arrive to take him away.  Chances are that the raccoon will have to be euthanized, but it is so much better than the way distemper would cause him to die.  At least euthanasia stops the suffering and provides the animal with a decent, humane death.

After someone comes out and verifies that this does look like distemper, make sure your dogs, and any other neighborhood dogs know to check with their vet to verify their vaccination status.  This disease is contagious to dogs.  If an infected raccoon drank out of a puddle in the yard, and then your dog drinks out of the same puddle, the dog can be infected with distemper.  It’s that easy.  We recommend hanging a sign out in front of the house or business to let passerby know that distemper was found in the area.  Early intervention can save lives.  Make sure that you always stay up to date with your pet’s distemper vaccinations.

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