A canine distemper outbreak has been identified in raccoons, dogs, coyotes, foxes and skunks in Los Angeles County. Local residents are being reminded to vaccinate their dogs against distemper and report any suspected signs of distemper to their veterinarian. (Keeping their pets away from wildlife should also be recommended.)

Distemper is an infection caused by a virus which is related to the virus that causes measles in people. It can cause different types of disease in dogs, raccoons and some other wild mammals, but neurological disease is often present and can appear similar to rabies.

Canine distemper cannot be transmitted to people, but, in a roundabout way, distemper outbreaks can be a public health concern.  This is because of the potential for rabies cases to be mistaken for (and dismissed as) distemper cases, leading to increased exposure of people to rabid animals.

Quite a few years ago, there was a cat with neurological problems under my parents front porch.  It was a stray cat that had been in the neighbourhood for a while, and which sometimes interacted with people. When the local authorities were contacted, the response was "Don’t worry, it probably has distemper." This was probably true, and since there was no known direct contact with people (something that is difficult to really know in a social stray) testing for rabies wasn’t done. However, the concern is that rabies cases will be missed, or, more concerningly, human exposure to rabid animals will be missed because of the assumption that it’s really distemper.

Understanding disease patterns in an area is important when determining the likelihood of a particular disease and the appropriate response to a sick animal. At the same time, you can’t get complacent and assume that trends are absolute. With an almost invariably fatal disease like rabies, you have to be careful not to overlook the rare case amongst large number of other, similarly appearing diseases. If someone has contact with an animal suspected of having distemper, the potential for rabies exposure must not be forgotten.

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