Canine Distemper in Raccoons: What You Need to Know

Chattanooga is in the middle of a distemper outbreak.

Yikes, the zombie apocalypse is upon us!

Humans aren’t the only animals who experience pandemics. In recent decades, racccoons and many other wild animals have been massively afflicted with canine distemper, an extremely contagious virus that passed to wildlife through unvaccinated dogs. We saw lower-than-average rates of canine distemper in wild raccoons this year, but had a sudden spike just in the last week. These animals have been particularly concentrated in Hixson and Red Bank.

The biggest indicator, for us, that an animal has canine distemper is that the finder will usually describe its behavior only as “something’s wrong.” Symptoms of canine distemper can be very vague and the animal may simply seem “off.” It may approach humans fearlessly, stand around looking confused, or make odd, repetitive motions. It may drag or repetitively lift a limb, which can often be mistaken for a broken leg. Many raccoons with distemper will bare or smack their teeth. As the virus progresses, the animal will usually become blind and experience seizures.

No one likes to hear this— and we hate that it’s the case— but no wildlife rehabilitator can treat canine distemper. It is extremely contagious and bringing just one raccoon with the virus into a rehabilitation facility can quickly wipe out every single patient in care. Forcing a raccoon through any attempt at treatment is also very cruel, since the disease is painful and has a near-100% mortality rate even with weeks of intensive care. The extreme few raccoons that have ever survived it have had lifelong disabilities and a very poor quality of life. We believe that suffering animals deserve humane euthanasia, and we cannot risk our other patients’ health and safety.

For that reason, if you have found a raccoon with distemper in the Chattanooga area, please call animal control to arrange the animal’s trip to the Rainbow Bridge. That is McKamey if you are in city limits and Humane Educational Society if you are elsewhere in Hamilton County. We know that it is painful to “give up” on a sick animal, but the animals depend on humans to help them pass peacefully, and it is the only fair and humane thing to do in these cases.

The best way to prevent canine distemper in raccoons is to remove all food sources from your property. We believe this specific outbreak of canine distemper started about seven weeks ago when a group of wild raccoons fed nightly by a Chattanooga resident began getting sick one by one. Raccoons fed by humans often overcrowd at feeding sites and exchange viruses with each other and with other animals. This is one of many reasons that we strongly discourage the public feeding raccoons.

Finally, please make sure your pets are vaccinated! Canine distemper is not contagious to humans, but can spread to unvaccinated dogs, even without direct contact. Please check with your vet to make sure your dog’s vaccines are up-to-date and that your pup is protected.

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