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Distemper confirmed in Ashland

Wildlife biologists are investigating an apparent outbreak of canine distemper in the local fox population, and health officials are warning dog owners to vaccinate their pets against this often-fatal disease.

The virus has been confirmed in the carcasses of two gray foxes found dead in Ashland and one in south Medford over the past month, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Two more dead foxes picked up over the past week in Ashland were sent Wednesday to the Oregon State University Diagnostics Lab for testing.

Biologists also have fielded more than a dozen calls in the past two weeks regarding gray foxes displaying strange behavior, such as walking in circles, stumbling and foaming at the mouth.

"We've suspected distemper and it's been confirmed," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "Is it a pandemic? No. As of now? An outbreak.

"It's a wildlife issue but it's also a public-health issue in terms of pets," Vargas says.

The best defense for pet owners is to keep their dogs' distemper vaccinations updated, Vargas says.

Similar outbreaks have swept through the Rogue Valley's raccoon populations, killing hundreds of raccoons, in the early 1990s and mid-2000s. High concentrations of raccoons in urban areas was one reason for the severity of the outbreaks.

Amid a 2005-06 outbreak, the ODFW banned the trapping and releasing of raccoons in the wild, and the outbreak eventually quelled. But Vargas says it was unproven that the releasing ban alone ended the outbreak.

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

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

The south Medford fox was found dead near South Stage Road, Vargas says. The Ashland foxes were scattered around town, from the North Valley View and Emigrant Lake areas to the city's core, he says.

The cause of the outbreaks is 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 more associated with people feeding wildlife, Vargas says.

"That's one of the reasons we strongly encourage people not to feed wildlife," he says.

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

Mark Freeman is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.