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Possible distemper cases in raccoons a reminder to vaccinate pets

Dan Grove, ND Game and Fish Department wildlife veterinarian1 / 2
Jay Boulanger2 / 2

GRAND FORKS—Raccoons displaying odd behavior symptomatic of distemper have been reported by homeowners near Larimore, N.D., and while nothing has been confirmed, the reports are a good reminder for people to make sure their dogs and other pets are vaccinated, experts say.

Distemper—or canine distemper, as it's officially known—is a viral-borne illness similar to rabies.

"We always recommend you maintain vaccinations on your pets so that if they do become exposed that they have less of a chance of getting it," said Dr. Dan Grove, wildlife veterinarian for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's always better to vaccinate and prevent contact with wildlife if you can than it is to try and treat after the fact."

Unlike rabies, distemper is not infectious to humans, but people still should stay away from wildlife, Grove said.

Ann Bailey, who lives southeast of Larimore, said in an email that her husband, Brian Gregoire, shot a raccoon exhibiting odd behavior a couple of weeks ago in their yard, and a neighbor reported her dogs had tangled with a couple of raccoons.

Similar incidents also have been reported in the area by others, including a raccoon spotted "stumbling around in a field" on Thanksgiving Day, Bailey said.

Animals with rabies can act either dumb or aggressive, while distemper symptoms can include eye and nose discharge, a rough coat or an emaciated appearance, said Jay Boulanger, a UND assistant professor of wildlife ecology and human dimensions.

Raccoons with distemper also can appear disoriented or walking aimlessly, and muscle spasms may be visible, Boulanger said. Rabies generally is spread through bites, while distemper is highly contagious and can spread through the air via coughing, sneezing or shared food sources, he said.

Skunks are the primary carrier of rabies in this area, and while distemper might be the more likely disease in multiple sightings of sick raccoons, that wouldn't be known without testing,

Boulanger said.

Anyone who sees a raccoon or other wild animal acting strangely should contact a local game warden, animal control officer or a federal USDA Wildlife Services expert, Grove said, adding he wasn't aware of any recent increase in the prevalence of distemper.

"There might be a little pocket here and there," he said. "Basically, it's a density-dependent disease, which means that as the population grows, they're coming in contact more with each other."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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