This post has been updated with new information as of October 2, 2008.
Raccoons, just like dogs and cats, can have roundworms in their intestine. Dogs are typically infected by the species Toxocara canis, and cats are infected by Toxocara cati. Raccoons are infected by a type of roundworm from a different genus, called Baylisascaris procyonis. There is one thing that all three of the parasites have in common – the larvae of these worms can infect humans, causing a condition called visceral larval migrans.
Dogs and cats are usually dewormed as puppies and kittens, and often as adults as well, which dramatically decreases the number of pets that are infected with roundworms. Raccoons are not so lucky – in the northern and northeastern parts of North America, over 70% of raccoons may be infected with Baylisascaris. In Ontario, it has been estimated that only about 20-30% of raccoons are infected, but usually with high numbers of worms. In either case, younger raccoons are even more likely to be infected. Infected animals may shed millions of parasite eggs in their stool, and the eggs can survive in the soil for months or even years.
After a few weeks, the eggs in the raccoon stool become infective. If a person swallows the eggs, they hatch in the small intestine and release larvae. These larvae can then burrow through the wall of the intestine and migrate through tissues all over the body, causing tissue damage and inflammation. The signs of illness are often not very specific, and may include things like fever, fatigue and nausea. If the larvae migrate through the brain or spinal cord, a person may develop neurological signs like loss of coordination and muscle control. This is called neural larval migrans, which is the most serious type of disease caused by these larvae. If the larvae migrate through the eye, they can cause blindness. This condition is known as ocular larval migrans.
There have been less than 25 cases of confirmed visceral larval migrans due to Baylisascaris in the USA as of 2003, but the condition is very hard to diagnose with certainty, and it is possible that many cases are mistaken for other illnesses. The disease is also very difficult to treat, and neurological damage from neural larval migrans is usually permanent, so the best thing to do is prevent infection in the first place. Here are some tips on avoiding Baylisascaris:
- Avoid contact with raccoons. Many people think raccoons are cute, but they are wild animals. Raccoons are also a risk for transmission of rabies if a person is scratched or bitten. NEVER keep a raccoon as a pet.
- Discourage raccoons from hanging around your house. Clear brush and seal access to basements and attics where raccoons may try to nest or form latrines. Keep garbage in tightly-closed garbage cans. Eliminate outdoor water sources.
- Always wash your hands well with soap and water after working with soil (e.g. in the garden).
- Clean up raccoon latrines. This must be done very carefully – avoid getting any raccoon stool on your hands or clothes. The stool should be burned, buried or sent to a landfill. Clean the area where the stool was found with boiling water. Wash your hands very carefully when you’re done. Follow this link for more detailed information on how to identify and clean up raccoon latrines.
Baylisascaris procyonis less commonly infects animal species other than raccoons, including skunks, and it has even been found in dogs. It’s important to have your dog’s stool examined for parasite eggs on a regular basis (typically once or twice a year) and to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for deworming your dog.
More information about Baylisascaris is available on the CDC’s Baylisascaris Infection website.