There have been various news reports from different parts of North America describing distemper outbreak in raccoons. Distemper is a viral infection caused by canine distemper virus, which is related to the human measles virus (but the canine version can’t infect people). A variety of animal species in addition to dogs can get distemper, most notably raccoons.
Distemper outbreaks are not uncommon in raccoons, and one big problem with distemper is that the neurological signs cannot be distinguished from rabies. Yes, there may be some general trends in how a raccoon with distemper behaves that differ from one with rabies, but it’s far from definitive. That creates issues because distemper is of absolutely no human health concern while rabies can be transmitted to humans and is almost invariably fatal.
A Windsor-Essex (Ontario) outbreak of distemper in raccoons highlights some of these issues and the care that must be taken with regard to public communications.
Authorities are “urging the Windsor-Essex public not to worry about a rising number of incidents with strange-acting raccoons: The poor scavengers are suffering from distemper, not rabies.”
- This is bad communication in my opinion. I’d rather see something like authorities are "urging the public the avoid raccoons because of the risk of rabies exposure, but to be aware that a raccoon that is behaving abnormally probably has distemper, not rabies." Telling people not to worry is okay, but making it seem like there’s no issue whatsoever is another. No one can say for sure that all of these affected raccoons have distemper, not rabies.
A good statement appears later in the article ”(Executive Director of the Windsor-Essex County Humane Society Melanie) Coulter stressed that although the disease is highly contagious among animals, it can’t be passed to humans. But she added that raccoons with distemper are still capable of sudden aggression, especially if they feel cornered. As well, the symptoms of distemper are similar to those associated with rabies — and the difference can’t be determined without lab testing.”
- That’s much better. It highlights the problem and explains that it’s probably not a risk to people, but also makes it clear that you can’t be sure it’s not rabies.
The key thing is avoiding contact with raccoons all of the time, with particular attention to raccoons that are acting abnormally, since they are more likely to have rabies and they can be unpredictable. Some other things to consider:
- Don’t keep raccoons as pets (common but illegal, at least here).
- Don’t encourage raccoons to live around your home.
- Keep pets away from wildlife.
- Ensure dogs (and cats) are vaccinated against rabies and distemper, in case they have an unexpected incident with a raccoon.
Image: Two Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor), taking refuge in tree, Ottawa Ontario (photo credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson)(click image for source)