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Disease Caused Ohio Raccoons' Zombie-Like Behavior: What Is Distemper?

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Raccoons at Youngstown, Ohio exhibited zombie-like behavior that had many residents worried over the last few weeks. As it turns out, it was Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) that caused the strange behavior, and not rabies. What exactly is distemper?

Zombie Raccoons

These past weeks, residents of Youngstown, Ohio have been disturbed about reports of "zombie raccoons" that displayed strange behavior. These raccoons evidently bare their teeth with saliva dripping from their mouths, do not get scared by loud noises and big movements, are active in the daylight despite being nocturnal creatures, and stand on their hind legs. The creatures also repeat the bizarre movements again and again as though in a pattern.

Though some initially believed that the raccoons are infected with rabies, they are evidently infected with a common virus called distemper, which normally affects unvaccinated dogs as well as wild mammals such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks.

Canine Distemper Virus

Canine distemper is a serious disease that is caused by a virus that affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and nervous system of dogs. As mentioned, it may also affect wildlife, and has also been reported in seals and wild cats such as leopards, tigers, and lions.

Symptoms of the disease include fever, lethargy, nasal discharge, reduced appetite, and vomiting. When the virus attacks the nervous system, dogs develop a circling behavior, muscle twitching, convulsions, chewing movements, and partial or complete paralysis. It has also earned the nickname "hard pad disease" as it causes the dogs' food pads to harden and thicken.

The virus may be transmitted by airborne exposure, sharing food or water bowls, and from mother dogs to their puppies through the placenta. Often, distemper outbreaks are a result of interaction between wild animals and domestic dogs.

Distemper is more often a fatal disease, and the dogs that survive often end up with permanent nervous system damage. This is why it is important to vaccinate dogs when they are still puppies so as to help build their immunity, and to keep the vaccinations up to date.

CDV In Raccoons

Among wildlife, the symptoms of distemper resemble the symptoms of rabies. In raccoons, CDV causes the creatures to have seizures and approach people or sleep in areas close to people. They generally lose their fear of humans and appear as though they were blind. A mucus discharge may also be observed around the eyes and nose of a raccoon with distemper, and they may also exhibit coughing, tremors, diarrhea, seizures, vomiting, or chewing fits.

Though the disease causes the raccoons to generally act lethargic or disoriented, they can turn aggressive if they are cornered. As such, people are advised not to go near raccoons that are acting strangely. Further, even if distemper does not affect humans, it is wise to avoid contact with wildlife suspected to be infected with distemper, and to keep pets away from areas where they may be in contact with wildlife.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot that can be done to help distemper-infected raccoons, and perhaps the best way to help them is to call authorities so that they may be humanely taken care of and to reduce their chances of spreading the disease.

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