The Toronto Star had a front page article today about an ongoing distemper outbreak in raccoons, and the potential effects on dogs. Toronto’s not alone, as there are distemper outbreaks underway in many different municipal regions.

Distemper is an infection caused by a virus that is related to human measles virus. It mainly affects dogs, raccoons and ferrets. It can cause intestinal, respiratory and neurological disease, with neurological problems being the most severe. Vaccination of dogs against distemper is highly effective, and has greatly reduced the impact of this virus on the pet dog population.

Distemper cannot be transmitted to people, so the disease itself is only an animal health risk. However, there’s an indirect effect of which people need to be aware. Rabies always needs to be considered in dogs and raccoons that have signs of neurological disease. If there is so much distemper in an area that people assume every sick (wild) animal they find has distemper, there is a risk that the odd (but important) case of rabies may be missed, leading to human exposure. It’s easy to dismiss a neurological raccoon or unvaccinated dog as having distemper, and it usually is distemper (particular in light of the current outbreak), but the implications of missing a case of rabies can be severe since it can be transmitted to people and is almost invariably fatal.

If distemper is present in your area (or, really, even if it’s not currently a problem):

  • Make sure your dog is vaccinated.
  • Keep your dog away from wild animals, especially ones that are acting strangely.
  • Keep yourself away from wild animals, especially ones that are acting strangely.
  • Don’t do things that will encourage raccoons to move into your yard, like leaving out food.
  • If you see a wild animal that is acting strangely, call your local animal control agency.

Photo credit: The Star – Toronto edition 18-Feb-10