Officials tracking distemper outbreak in raccoons

Wildlife biologists are investigating an apparent outbreak of canine distemper that's racing through the local raccoon population.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the past two weeks has collected eight raccoons that turned up dead in Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville and south Medford, and six already have been confirmed as suffering from distemper.

Last year six dead raccoons collected in Jackson and Josephine counties tested positive for the disease, said Mark Vargas, ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

"We've had it before in foxes, and now we're starting to see it a lot more in raccoons," Vargas says. "When the raccoon population gets high, you often see distemper outbreaks, and I don't think there's a storm drain in Jackson County without a family of 'coons in it."

Distemper does not affect people, but pets are susceptible, particularly if pet owners haven't kept up with distemper vaccinations, Vargas said.

Distemper is a highly contagious and generally fatal virus that regularly spikes in urban areas of the Pacific Northwest when local populations of raccoons, skunks and other animals surge.

Infected animals often have runny noses and eyes, are listless in daylight, and often appear disoriented and uninterested in food or water.

Biologists are keeping tabs on distemper-infected raccoons and foxes around people, Vargas said, because symptoms can be similar to rabies. Biologists want to check every raccoon that died near people to test for distemper and rabies, which can pose health threats to people.

Anyone who finds a dead raccoon near a house should call ODFW at 541-826-8778 to report it. If possible, double-bag it, and wear gloves when handling it, Vargas said.

Residents who find a live raccoon with distemper symptoms can euthanize it if they live outside of city limits, Vargas said. Biologists don't plan to go out to find and euthanize sickly raccoons, he said.

Similar outbreaks swept through the Rogue Valley's raccoon populations in the early 1990s and mid-2000s.

In a 2005-06 outbreak, ODFW banned the trapping and release of raccoons in the wild, and the outbreak eventually stopped. But biologists said it was unproven that the ban on releases alone ended the outbreak.

The cause of the outbreaks was unknown, but animals can spread it from nose-to-nose contact or a shared food source, which is not common in the wild and is associated with people feeding wildlife.

Humans should avoid touching any wild animals, especially those suspected of carrying a disease, Vargas said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.


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