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The Buzz

What Are 'Zombie Raccoons'? Should I Be Concerned?

(Photo courtesy of Michael Nagrocki)

The "zombie raccoons" that have been making headlines across northern Illinois lately may sound like characters from a spin-off of "The Walking Dead," but these animals are suffering from a viral illness that can be spread to dogs.

These so-called "zombie raccoons" have canine distemper, which does not affect humans but can be transmitted to vaccinated dogs as well as foxes, coyotes and skunks. Raccoons that contract the disease often display unusual behaviors, such as walking on their hind legs, baring their teeth and staggering, hence the term "zombie raccoons," the Chicago Tribune reports.

Distemper is a highly infectious and deadly viral illness that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of infected animals, according to the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic. In raccoons, distemper has two forms. One form causes eye and respiratory infections as well as a runny nose, while the other causes the animals to display unusual behaviors, including disorientation, stumbling, wandering and becoming friendly with humans, the wildlife clinic reports. Symptoms typically get progressively worse, and the disease is usually fatal.

The disease is spread from animal to animal by direct contact with bodily fluids or droppings from infected animals, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The best way to prevent the illness from spreading to dogs is to ensure they are properly vaccinated. You should also avoid feeding your pets outdoors or leaving water outdoors. If your dogs do eat outside, bring the bowls inside after they have eaten.

Distemper is most likely to occur in raccoons when populations become large or concentrated. It can be cyclical, and the cycle can take five to seven years to run its course, the Oregon fish and wildlife department reports.  

Outbreaks of distemper in local raccoon populations increase the risk that the disease can be transmitted to dogs in that area, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

In dogs, the first sign of distemper is typically eye discharge that can be watery or pus-like, followed by fever, lethargy, coughing, nasal discharge, reduced appetite and vomiting. As the illness progresses and affects the nervous system, dogs can develop a circling behavior, muscle twitches, convulsions and head tilt, followed by seizures and partial or complete paralysis, the veterinary association reports. The virus can also cause the pads on a dog's paws to become thick and hard. 

Distemper is not the same as rabies, but in wildlife, observable signs of the two diseases are similar. Any raccoon exhibiting unusual behavior near humans, including circling, friendly behavior toward people or not showing fear around humans, should be assumed to have either distemper or rabies, the wildlife clinic advises. Never approach or touch a raccoon, and warn children to stay away. 

Will County Animal Control advises residents to be cautious around any raccoon that can be approached during daylight hours, said clerk dispatcher Brian Vanek. A county animal control officer will retrieve sick or injured raccoons or those acting abnormally during the day.

Will County Animal Control serves only the unincorporated areas of the county, but Vanek said anyone residing within city limits should call their local police department's non-emergency number to report raccoons acting abnormally.

Raccoons picked up by animal control because they are suspected of being diseased are euthanized. While the state requires that raccoons suspected of being rabid be tested for rabies, the state has not begun to require testing for distemper, Vanek said.

He said animal control has not seen a recent influx of calls about raccoons, but that incidents tend to ebb and flow. Last year, for example, there were some pockets of sick raccoons in the New Lenox and Wilmington areas.

"It goes up and down all year," he said.


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