Raccoons are one of New England’s most common wild animals. Clever and cunning, they can be cute or a nuisance (depending on whether or not you’ve got one going through your garbage or living in your attic), but there are a handful of common raccoon diseases to be aware of. Dr. Greg Mertz, veterinarian and CEO of the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, explains what they are, what to look for, and how to stay safe.
Raccoons are one of North America’s best wild animals. As pesky as they may at times seem, raccoons are native to our fields, woodlands, streams, and lakes and represent a history that spans a million or so years. They have enjoyed glaciers, historic episodes of global warming, near arctic, temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical climates, and, like most successful species, they do well in a variety of habitats with multiple food sources. When these three characteristics are coupled with native intelligence, you end up with a species that can outwit most of us.
Therein lies a conflict with humankind. Not many people like being out-witted by what are perceived as evolutionary inferiors. Putting out garbage for pick-up, creating bird-feeding stations, closely mowing lawns, creating sand boxes, building sheds and gazebos, and maintaining swimming pools may seem peculiarly human endeavors, but they also create useful situations for the rearing of raccoon offspring. Perhaps some people should think more like raccoons when planning their houses and yards.
I include myself in this group, because I have a family of raccoons that right now are living in my attic. When raccoons move in, it is not so much “wildlife gone wild” as it is a carpentry problem. I saw the hole in my eave last fall, and knew it needed repair, but I thought, “I’ll do it next spring. What animal is going to see this hole and move in this winter? I am so much smarter than animals, and I can barely figure out how to get to that spot on my roof!”
From the rumpus I hear inside my bedroom, I know that there are more than raccoons in my attic. I hear the rumble of loud heavy feet, the scurry of little tiny feet, the shrieks of annoyed raccoons, and the chatter of angry squirrels. This all happens just before daybreak. The squirrels are getting up ready for breakfast, and the raccoons are coming home from a night out in the neighborhood. And I lay there, wondering if they will break through the ceiling and land in my bed.
I can see how this might catch some people off guard. “My God, what will these animals do next? And for crying out loud, what diseases must they be carrying and giving to my children?”
These are good questions. It is only rarely that you hear about raccoons breaking through walls and landing on people’s beds. Still, knowing about their diseases is a beneficial thing any way you slice it. The more knowledge you have, the better you can navigate all the seedy little viruses, bacteria and parasites that are after your body. Raccoons suffer from some of the same diseases we do, but others we do not.
There are 3 common raccoon diseases that are of concern to people and their pets.
Humans do not get distemper, but dogs can. Distemper in raccoons causes disorientation, seizures, and respiratory infections. If you see a raccoon wandering and disoriented with a runny nose and eyes, it is most likely infected with distemper virus. Dogs should be vaccinated yearly to prevent them from infection.
Rabies is a disease that humans can get. The best protection that any of us have from this deadly virus is vaccination of pets and other domestic animals in our homes or vicinity. Virtually any mammal can get rabies, and it is almost uniformly fatal. Rabies in raccoons causes disorientation, seizures, and lethargy. This sounds a lot like distemper, and is, in fact, virtually indistinguishable without laboratory testing. You can’t tell if a raccoon (or other animal) has rabies or distemper by just looking at it, so the rule of thumb is to never approach wild mammals.
Raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) is a parasite that does not cause disease in raccoons, but is a devastating and even fatal disease when transferred to humans. It is generally accepted that about half of the raccoons in North America are carrying raccoon roundworm in their stool. That means that just about every other raccoon in America can give us a disease that might kill us. Although this is technically true, the contamination route is so unlikely that it is rarely seen in humans. To get it, you have to ingest raccoon fecal matter that is at least 30 days old.
There are some occasions where this has happened. The most common occurrences are usually associated contaminated firewood being stored in a house with a young child or person who puts everything into their mouth. It has also happened with individuals who have close association with raccoons, like wildlife rehabilitators who raise them and care for them. There have been less than 30 cases reported over the past 20 years, when the disease was first described. Nevertheless, you should always keep your firewood clean, and don’t raise raccoons in your house. If you have raccoon feces that you need to remove from an attic or shed, do it by wetting it down and carefully bagging it while wearing a face mask and disposable gloves.
Raccoons are one of North America’s treasures. They do not deserve to be hung up as coats, or killed because they are at times a simple nuisance. It is the diseases that are sometimes a problem — not the raccoons. Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House, wrote in 1949: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”
To paraphrase Henry Beston’s incredible insight into humans sharing this planet with the other million or so species: “Perhaps we need a wiser view of raccoons.” They have the same birthright to this planet that we do. If our carpentry (or lack of it) provides a place for them to live, then the onus is on us. Otherwise, raccoons are cleverer than we are. And perhaps that is the point.
At the New England Wildlife Center we are trying to compile an anthology of stories, drawings, cartoons, songs, poems and photographs of raccoons. If you would like to contribute to this with your own creation, or would like to recommend a piece of work, please contact us at the Center at 781-682-4878.
Note: If you find a wild animal you believe may be orphaned, here are guidelines from the Center on how to know if a baby animal is truly orphaned. If you find a wild animal you believe may be injured, do not approach it, but contact your local wildlife center.
Want to learn more? Check out Raccoons | Fun Facts. Dr. Greg Mertz, DVM is the chief executive officer of the New England Wildlife Center. He is responsible for educational and medical programs at the Center, and has a lifelong interest in raccoons.The New England Wildlife Center is an informal, hands-on science education organization that uses the activities of veterinary medical care and rehabilitation of wildlife—like raccoons, reptiles, and birds of prey—and the veterinary care of exotic pets—like snakes, lizards, and turtles—as a vehicle for learning by elementary, middle school, high school and undergraduate students. The Center, located in the green, sustainable Thomas E. Curtis Wildlife Hospital and Education Facility, is a community-integrated non-profit that serves as the meeting place for science educators, reptile enthusiasts, animal control officers, wildlife caretakers, folk musicians, and habitat-based artists.The New England Wildlife Center. 500 Columbian Street, South Weymouth, MA. 781-682-4878; wildlife-education-center.com