Canine distemper in Niagara region raccoons

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Welland SPCA are warning people about an apparently large number of cases of distemper in raccoons in the area. Distemper is a pretty nasty disease which can be spread between dogs and wildlife. It’s caused by canine distemper virus, but the "canine" part of the name can be a little misleading, since this virus readily infects some other species such as raccoons.

In addition to the problems with sick and dying raccoons caused by the outbreak, there are two main concerns for pet dogs:

One concern is the potential for wildlife to transmit canine distemper virus back to dogs. It’s hard to say what the risk of that is, and the risk would be primarily to young dogs that are not adequately vaccinated. If a dog has an encounter with a raccoon that is sick with distemper, it’s possible the pet could be exposed to the virus. Dogs are also probably more likely to have close encounters with sick raccoons that are unable or unwilling to run away, as opposed to healthy raccoons. If an inadequately vaccinated dog gets exposed, it can get very sick, which is obviously bad for the dog, and also creates another potentially infectious animal to keep passing the virus along.

The other concern is differentiating distemper from rabies. Distemper can cause signs that are very similar to rabies. If a dog has an encounter with a raccoon that is behaving abnormally, rabies is a big concern. If a dog is exposed and the raccoon is not available for rabies testing, the dog would require a 6-month strict quarantine or euthanasia if it's not vaccinated (or not adequately vaccinated), or a 45 day "observation period" (on a proverbial tight leash) if vaccinated. These measures aren’t easy to implement, and unvaccinated dogs often end up being euthanized because owners don’t want to go through the hassle of a 6 month quarantine.

What does this mean to the average pet owner? Well, nothing that they shouldn’t be thinking about anyway. This just increases the relevance of some routine measures such as:

  • Keeping dogs that are outside are under control so they don’t encounter wildlife.
  • Ensuring dogs are properly vaccinated against distemper and rabies.
  • Taking particular care to prevent exposure of young unvaccinated dogs to wildlife.
  • Discouraging raccoons from taking up residence in yards.

Nothing earth-shattering, but these basic precautions can greatly reduce the risk of disease transmission from wildlife to dogs, be it rabies, distemper or other bad bugs.

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