Last year, our Facebook feeds couldn’t seem to stop talking about “zombie raccoons.” This year, it’s a “new” Asian strain of canine distemper. What’s the deal? Are our pets safe? Are raccoons harboring the next worldwide pandemic — zombies or otherwise?

Our take: the only difference between animal diseases now and a few years ago is that more people are noticing and reporting animals’ behavior thanks to development pushing into wild habitats. Unfortunately, more humans in contact with more wildlife also means the potential to make the disease problem worse. How? Read on!

First: “Asian” Distemper

What we know: a puppy transported from South Korea to Canada was infected with a strain of canine distemper virus (CDV) not previously seen in North America. While in quarantine — before reaching its destination — it presented with symptoms shortly after its arrival and had to be humanely euthanized.

Whether the dog was a rescue, or an import, isn’t known, as the Washington Post reported. However, virologists believe the existing CDV vaccine will be effective against this strain of the virus, which doesn’t mutate as rapidly as, say, influenza.

Asian CDV isn’t known to be anywhere in the US, and CDV vaccine effectiveness is important because the CDV strains that are already here in North America run rampant every year — including, sadly, this year.

What is Canine Distemper Virus?

According to the American Medical Veterinary Association (AMVA):

“Canine distemper is a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs.”

Its symptoms can (not always, but often) include:

  • Watery to pus-like discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite / Emaciation / Wasting / Anorexia
  • Vomiting / Diarrhea
  • Circling
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitches / Ataxia (loss of control of body movements)
  • Lack of fear of humans or other animals
  • Convulsions (twitching, jerking, jaw chewing); salivation
  • Seizures
  • Partial or complete paralysis

What animals can get CDV?

Domestic dogs, foxes, wolves, and non-canine species including raccoons, skunks, mink and ferrets are all susceptible. According to the AMVA, wild cats* such as lions, tigers, and leopards can catch it, as can seals.

*”Feline distemper” is a different virus entirely, caused by parvovirus.The AMVA reports that it has become uncommon thanks to vaccine effectiveness.

How does CDV spread?

The wide range of species that can catch CDV means it’s easily transmitted across species. According to the AMVA, animals “shed” the disease, often for weeks before they show any clinical signs, through their feces, urine, blood, saliva, and even through the air.

What does this actually mean? Animals might fight in the wild, spreading the disease through bites and scratches. Animals who den together, including mothers and babies, can cough and sneeze on one another. Shared food and water dishes — including those left out for outdoor cats or dogs — can also spread the disease. (Even if you don’t see symptoms in your dogs because they’ve been vaccinated, wild animals can still transmit to one another.)

Incubation is typically 9-14 days, though it could be as long as six weeks. And, infected animals often recover from — or never even present with — respiratory symptoms, only to develop neurological symptoms 2-3 weeks later.

We’ve seen an uptick in CDV in recent years because of all the development happening across the Upstate. As wild habitats are destroyed, animals are forced into tighter living spaces. More animals living closer together makes it easier for any disease to spread.

So can “trap and release.” Taking a sick animal out of its home range and transporting it to an area where healthy animals live introduces the virus to those healthy animals, like a domino effect. It’s a bad idea for other reasons, too, which we discuss later on.

Is CDV treatable / survivable?

CDV is preventable through vaccination. After infection, CDV can be treated — but only if it’s caught early enough. Animals at the later stages of infection must be euthanized.

In our experience, babies have about a 20% chance of survival with treatment. That’s when we see them showing the very earliest symptoms of infection (eyes and nose discharge) or not yet symptomatic, but known to have been in contact with an infected animal.

Again, in our experience, those odds drop when sick adults arrive at our rescue. If they come to us already displaying neurological symptoms, their CDV proves to be almost 100% fatal. But even among survivors, almost every instance we’ve seen, CDV symptoms result in permanent disabilities.* In 9 years of rehab, we’ve only had 2 cases of CDV where the animals recovered after treatment and could be released back to the wild.

*If you’ve come to any of our public events in the last year, you might recall that our USDA licensed, nonreleasable ambassador raccoon, Dory, is a CDV survivor. Dory’s sweet temperament and rear end weakness (which limits her climbing) mean she would never be able to survive in the wild — although, had the disease run its course, she wouldn’t have survived anyway. She now has a natural immunity against CDV.

Do you vaccinate your animals?

ALL our animals — our own pets and our wildlife — are vaccinated against CDV. This is important on two levels:

  • Animals that we rehabilitate and release back into nature cannot contract the disease, which will reduce its incidence.
  • Not that our pets come into contact with our wildlife rescues, but they could encounter a wild animal that lives on our rural property incidentally. Being vaccinated protects both our pets and the wildlife!

A sign for a local pet vaccination clinic.

I can’t get annual vaccines (too expensive, vet’s office is too far away) but I don’t want to keep my pets totally indoors.

There are many affordable and accessible resources to help! Mobile vets, pop-up vaccine clinics at farm stores, and rescues can all help with low-cost vaccines. A quick Google search should help you find these in your area. Also be on the lookout for roadway signs like this one on Old Spartanburg Rd. in Taylors/Greer!

If I see a raccoon out during the day, does that mean it’s sick?

No! Especially at this time of year, a raccoon out during the day is normal behavior. In particular, nursing mother raccoons, foxes, even coyotes frequently go out during the day to fulfill their nutritional requirements — their bodies are working harder to keep them healthy, and to make milk for their babies.

Please take the time to observe any wild animal that you see unexpectedly. CDV and rabies symptoms can look very similar, and you should call us if you see the animal doing any of the symptoms listed above.

Otherwise, leave the animal alone! Even an “aggressive” animal may simply be a protective mother. Temporarily secure any pets and observe the animal from a safe distance where she can’t see you. Feel free to take a video and call us if you’re unsure.

Can I trap and relocate an obviously sick animal someplace else so that it doesn’t hurt pets?

Trapping and relocating is unwise for many reasons:

  1. It can remove a healthy nursing mother from her babies, who will slowly starve to death.
  2. If the animal is sick, relocating it to an area with healthy animals will spread the disease even more rapidly.
  3. Trapping and relocating also encourages more population growth of a given species.

Animal populations are already out of balance because of habitat destruction in the Upstate. That’s why we advocate for humane coexistence. You can seal your home to exclude wildlife, and humane removal options exist for animals who have already taken up residence. Contact us to find out how!