Recently, I was speaking with a physician who mentioned that a colleague has recommended that people with raccoons in their yard get rid of their dogs because of the risk of Baylisascaris procyonis. This parasite, also known as the raccoon roundworm, can cause severe neurological disease in people that ingest infective parasite eggs from the environment.
The most severe type of disease caused by the migrating larvae of this roundworm (neural larval migrans) is very nasty, and usually causes death or serious, severe neurological deficits. However, the recommendation to get rid of dogs when there are raccoons around makes no sense. Here’s why:
- The main host for Baylisascaris is the raccoon. A large percentage of healthy raccoons (over 90% in some areas) are infected and pass large numbers of parasite eggs in their stool. Exposure to eggs from raccoon feces is the main source of human infection.
- Human infections are very rare. They predominantly occur in people that are at increased risk of ingesting feces or dirt, based on their age or behaviour.
- Dogs can be infected with Baylisascaris, but this is rare.
- The small number of dogs that are shedding Baylisascaris in their feces do not pose an immediate risk to people. Eggs that are passed in feces are not immediately infective. Eggs must mature in the environment (which usually takes 2-4 weeks) before they are able to cause infections.
- There are no clearly documented cases of dogs being a source of human infection.
- The main risk from dogs is probably the potential for dogs to carry old (i.e. infectious) Baylisascaris eggs into houses on their haircoats, after roaming around raccoon infested areas.
How do you reduce the already very low risk associated with Baylisascaris and dogs?
- Discourage raccoons from living near your house. Raccoons defecate in certain areas or "latrines," where the soil becomes heavily contaminated with raccoon feces, and where tremendous numbers of infectious eggs can be present. If you make your yard uninviting to raccoons, then they won’t establish a latrine near your house.
- Carefully clean any raccoon latrines that might be on your property.
- Don’t let you dog have contact with raccoon latrines.
- If your dog has had contact with a raccoon latrine, give it a bath. Baylisascaris eggs are sticky and can stick to the dog’s coat quite well, so a thorough bath is much better than a quick rinse or brush. Wear gloves and some form of protective outwear (e.g. a coat that you take off after and promptly launder) while bathing the dog. Wash your hands thoroughly when done.
- Closely supervise people at increased risk of ingesting feces or dirt (e.g. young children) when they’re outside.
- A routine deworming program will eliminate Baylisascaris in the intestinal tract of a pet dog, in the unlikely event it’s been infected.
- Prophylactic treatment of dogs that have eaten (or have a tendency to eat) raccoon feces could be considered, but the need and usefulness of this is not clear.
Bottom line: You don’t need to get rid of your dog if there are raccoons in your yard. The risk of Baylisascaris infection from your dog is extremely low, and the steps above can help you decrease the risk even further. Getting rid of the raccoons (instead of the dog) will be much more effective.
More information about Baylisascaris and neural larval migrans is available in our archives.