Baby, it's cold outside! Not only are you feeling the extra cold weather so far this winter, wild animals are feeling it as well. As you tuck up under cozy blankets inside your home, wildlife such as raccoons may be trying to get inside your attic or basement to find some warmth. While raccoons are messy, loud, and all-around poor house guests, this year they bring with them some very unwanted luggage: distemper. Distemper is an almost always fatal virus that raccoons can pass to your pets. Here's what you need to know to protect your pets this winter.
Distemper: the basics
Distemper is a virus that humans cannot contract. However, it is spread between animals through the air as well as by both direct and indirect contact. This means that if you have sick raccoons nesting in your house, outbuildings or yard your pets could easily catch the disease. For example, if your pets eat out of food bowls that sick raccoons licked or come into contact with raccoon feces, they could become ill. Only rabies results in more deaths worldwide than distemper.
Distemper causes the following symptoms in pets:
mucus draining from the eyes
Distemper also lowers white blood cell counts and causes paralysis. In dogs, a distinguishing symptoms of distemper is the hardening of the paw pads. Without treatment, the virus can cause death. It is very important to make sure your pets are vaccinated against distemper, especially if you live in a rural area.
Raccoons: the carriers
Why are raccoons the bad guys when it comes to distemper this winter? There are two reasons:
Raccoons look for places to hibernate once cold weather comes. They are attracted to sheds, attics, basements, and the undersides of porches. They are stubborn animals, particularly resistant to vacating comfortable premises.
Canada is seeing an upsurge of raccoons carrying the distemper virus. For instance, by October of 2014 the communities of Oakville and Milton, in Toronto, had discovered 300 raccoons with distemper--a nearly 200% increase.
Signs of distemper
If you see a raccoon around your yard, how do you know if it is sick? In the early stages, distemper is hard to spot. In the later phase of the disease, animals become confused and have difficulty walking in a straight line; these symptoms mean that the virus has spread to the brain. A raccoon in the end stage of distemper is often assumed to have rabies because of its lurching walk and dazed look. The best advice if you spot a raccoon in your yard is to steer clear of it yourself and keep your pets indoors.
Although raccoons are stubborn to leave their winter hibernation spots, you can prevent them from showing up in the first place.
Make sure there are no holes in your screens
Seal up entrances to your basement or attic
Feed your cats and dogs indoors
Buy locking trash can lids, and use them consistently
If it's too late and you already have a family of raccoons on your property, call a wildlife control company for their advice and assistance. In the spring and summer seasons raccoons will come and go each day to forage for food, giving you the opportunity to seal up entrances before they return to the nest. However, in winter raccoons are much less active, so you will need the assistance of a professional.
As you spend more time indoors these next few months, make sure to keep an eye on your outbuildings and porches. Be alert to any strange sounds in your attic or basement, and watch for property damage to your roof or porches that could indicate the presence of a raccoon family. Protect your pets, and make sure no unwelcome guests ruin the joy of the season!
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