Rabies or distemper in raccoons

The Key Differences Between Rabies And Distemper Symptoms In Raccoons

Each year we get hundreds of calls from home owners who believe they’ve encountered a raccoon with rabies. Although Ontario has seen an increase in rabies over the past decade, the large portion of the reported cases turn out to be raccoons suffering from canine distemper.

Rabies and canine distemper are not the same. Both are generally fatal viral diseases but distemper attacks various bodily systems like the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems, while rabies affects the brain and nervous systems. They both affect the spinal cord and have shown symptoms of spinal cord lesions, but their complete list of symptoms are substantially different.

Below is a table of the primary differences in the symptoms between rabies and canine distemper:

Canine Distemper (Middle English distemperen) Rabies (Rabies lyssavirus)
high fever fever
eye inflammation headache
eye/nose discharge brain inflammation
laboured breathing meninges inflammation
coughing paralysis
vomiting anxiety
diarrhea insomnia
loss of appetite confusion
seizures agitation
nose hardening paranoia
footpads hardening hallucinations
abnormal behaviour delirium
extreme thirst coma
lethargy dehydration
appear blind or confused excessive salivation

The visual signs of distemper versus rabies in raccoons is that a raccoon afflicted with rabies may actually act more aggressive, while a raccoon afflicted with distemper may appear aggressive but actually be more disoriented and less afraid of humans.

Number of cases of rabies and distemper in Ontario

Over the past few years there’s been a steady rise in the number of cases of rabies and canine distemper among the raccoon populations in Ontario. In 2016 alone, we reported that there were 171 confirmed rabid raccoons in Ontario (that number has grown to 288 cases), and in 2017, there were 149 cases of rabies with 86 of them being attributed to raccoons.

On the other hand, statistics for cases of distemper are much higher within or without the raccoon populations. The SPCA responds to approximately 50 to 100 cases of distemper in raccoons per month per district. Cases of distemper in raccoons generally fluctuate throughout the year, but animal control services, the SPCA and the local humane societies all report a spike in the number of cases occurring during the mid-winter and early spring.

Below is an updated geographical depiction of number of raccoon strains of rabies in Ontario up to February 2019.

Rabies cases in Ontario for 2019

DID YOU KNOW? Dogs are largely responsible for introducing canine distemper into wildlife communities; it poses serious threats to many species of wildlife, had almost rendered the black-footed ferret extinct and it contributed to the extinction of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).

Which animals can contract distemper?

According to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, canine distemper:

…is caused by infection with the Canine morbillivirus. In North America this virus causes disease in domestic and wild dog species, coyotes, foxes, wolves, ferrets, skunks, raccoons, species of large wild cats, and pinnipeds. Domestic cats can also contract the virus, however, infection appears to be mostly asymptomatic. (source)

Humans can also contract distemper through exposure to the virus but have a higher chance of surviving, especially if they’re treated quickly and/or they’ve had a previous vaccination against the measles virus.

Causes and cures of distemper in raccoons

Like rabies, canine distemper (Canine morbillivirus) has no actual cure and only treatments of the disease are available for pets. Although there are many cases where the disease has been apparently cured in some dogs, even with ongoing treatment it has a 50% mortality rate in those affected.

Raccoon with distemperRaccoons found to be afflicted with distemper cannot be treated or vaccinated. When a raccoon with distemper is found, the only recourse is to have it euthanized. Although euthanization seems cruel and unfortunate there are virtually no other options available.

If the raccoon is not euthanized it will continue to suffer in extreme pain and anguish, and it can also spread the disease to other forms of wildlife while jeopardizing their habitats.

Canine distemper transmission in raccoons

Rabies is spread through exposure to the saliva of an infected animal, and distemper is generally passed through inhalation of the virus but also can spread through contact with bodily fluids or droppings of the animal that’s infected.

Historically distemper was usually spread from dogs to other forms of wildlife that have come into contact with it, or vice versa but the presence of the virus has become so rampant that it’s increasingly being spread from raccoon to raccoon within their natural habitat.

What you can do to stop the spread of distemper

If you own a dog, you can help stop the spread of canine distemper by ensuring that it gets vaccinated. This will ensure that it doesn’t get the virus and will hinder it from spreading it to other animals.

If you encounter a raccoon that is acting strange or odd, you can do your part by reporting it to your local humane society or SPCA. By doing so, the raccoon will be examined, and if necessary euthanized on site.

Although at the first view, it doesn’t appear that the spread of canine distemper is becoming a crisis, but the statistics and the research shows that it’s quite dangerous to existing wildlife communities and it can easily contribute to the extinction of many species much more than the rabies virus does.

2 responses to “The Key Differences Between Rabies And Distemper Symptoms In Raccoons”

  1. M Leybra says:

    Canine & feline parvo virus also fatal in raccoons, has been attributed to exposure of wildlife to the ‘pollution’ fall-out from domestic pet expansion into formerly isolated wildlife habitat. The world is changing, not for the better, with one aspect being more suffering for wildlife.

  2. Nicole Corrado says:

    Thank you for this article. It removes fear and stigma around animals.

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