KOKOMO - Animal-control officials say the number of raccoons infected with distemper has spiked by more than 400 percent this year in the city and county, and local veterinarians are urging dog owners to get their pets vaccinated to prevent the spread of the disease.
Karen Wolfe, executive director of the Kokomo Humane Society, which provides animal control for the city and county, said they have captured 43 raccoons so far this year infected with distemper, an incurable and highly contagious viral disease that can be passed onto other mammals such as dogs.
That’s up from just 10 raccoon cases last year.
Although the number of infected raccoons has skyrocketed, there is no indication the disease has spread to the area’s pet population, she said.
“It’s not really alarming, it’s just curious, since the raccoons are not attacking people,” Wolfe said. “As long as people keep their animals vaccinated it will be fine, but not everybody does that.”
Raccoons with distemper generally act disoriented or lethargic, but can become aggressive if cornered. They may approach people, or curl up to sleep in open areas in close proximity to people. They may also have seizures.
The virus is not considered a threat to humans.
Bryar Schroeter, an animal-control officer with the Kokomo Humane Society, said he has personally captured around 30 infected raccoons this year, and they all have either been in the throes of a seizure of lying despondent.
“They’re almost zombies at the point that we find them,” he said. “If they’re conscious, they walk around aimlessly or just lay around. It’s not like they’re rabid. They’re almost immobile.”
Schroeter said the humane society has responded on average to at least two cases a week, but he has sometimes captured up to three in just one day.
“It’s kind of weird this year. It really is,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this ends soon, because doing this two to five times a week is a lot. Hopefully it lightens up.”
Raccoons determined to have the disease are all captured and euthanized, Schroeter said. If officers can determine they don’t have distemper, they are released back into the wild.
With the spike in raccoon cases, animal experts are urging dog owners to get their pets vaccinated for the virus.
Canine distemper is a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Once a dog is infected, there is no cure. The disease is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous-system damage.
Symptoms in dogs include fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting. As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs develop circling behavior, head tilt, muscle twitches, convulsions and seizures, according to the AVMA.
Puppies and dogs most often become infected through direct contact or airborne exposure, such as sneezing or coughing, from an infected dog or wild animal. The virus can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls and equipment.
Hayley Green, a registered veterinarian technician with Jefferson Road Animal Hospital, said distemper shots are included in the basic package of vaccinations given to puppies when they are brought to a vet.
She urged any dog owner who has not yet vaccinated their pets to do so, noting the shot is quick and inexpensive.
“It’s a pretty nasty virus,” Green said. “We’d like to see zero cases of this, and prevention is the key. It’s super easy to prevent, but once they contract distemper, it’s usually fatal.”
Humane Society Director Wolfe said animal-control officers are not contracted with the city or county to respond to raccoon problems, but they have done so the help prevent the spread of the disease.
“We’re a humane society and these animals are suffering,” she said. “They’re not in our area, but if they’re injured, we’ll take them.”
She said anyone who sees a raccoon displaying signs of distemper can call an animal-control officer at 765-452-6224. However, officers will not trap or dispose of nuisance raccoons that are not infected.