Toronto is dealing with an ‘unprecedented’ spike in raccoon distemper cases

Toronto Animal Services says the city is seeing an unprecedented spike in raccoon distemper cases and your dogs could be at risk. Dilshad Burman with how to recognize the signs and protect your pets.

By Dilshad Burman

Toronto Animal Services is grappling with what they call an “unprecedented” spike in the number of distemper cases in the city’s raccoon population.

Distemper is generally present in raccoons and tends to spread between May to November every year. Cases die down during the colder months, but a mild winter led to sustained spread throughout December and is continuing into this spring, explains the manager of Toronto Animal Services’ Enforcement and Mobile Response Unit.

“If we look at the data at the end of 2022, we could see the emergence of a raccoon distemper outbreak, which does occur every two to three years in the population,” says Jasmine Herzog-Evans.

“For example, during the same period last year, we received 451 requests [for service related to raccoons]. This year, we’ve already received 1,088.”

The airborne virus is highly contagious and spreads quickly among raccoons as they tend to live in large, close groups.

“Think of the cold within your family — everybody becomes infected with it,” she explains.

“[Distemper] tends to take out really large groups at a time, and it’s much more noticeable in the raccoon population just because there’s just so many of them.”

While the disease does not spread to humans, it can affect any member of the canid family, like skunks and dogs.

“That’s why we do recommend that people ensure that their dogs are always supervised … that we are monitoring our animals when they’re outside, that they’re not chasing wildlife or being off-leash and, without your control, getting into carcasses that may have succumbed due to the virus,” Herzog-Evans says.

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Distemper can also spread through contact, and pet owners could carry it into their homes on shoes or clothing. Herzog-Evans says it is essential that dogs are vaccinated against distemper, and their shots are up-to-date.

“It’s not something that’s an add-on or an extra, it’s part of their routine vaccine practices. So we hope that every animal should hopefully receive their vaccination, and we will be able to protect them from contracting and becoming infected with this virus,” she says.

Raccoons with distemper can get aggressive when cornered, but usually tend to be lethargic or may appear blind or confused, wander aimlessly and may even approach humans due to disorientation, or curl up to sleep in open areas close to people.

“Because they appear docile because they are so sick and confused, people sometimes try to comfort them, and that may result in them being injured or bitten. And unfortunately, then Public Health has to get involved because they have to make sure that it’s not rabies, and it turns into a much longer process … they would have to go through a series of maybe prophylactic rabies vaccinations,” says Herzog-Evans.

She advises that it is best not to approach a raccoon that is acting abnormally. Instead, observe from a distance for signs of the virus, including mucus discharge around the eyes and nose as well as seizures, and call 311 if necessary.

“Once the officer is there, they will assess the animal. Is this an animal who just may have gotten accidentally displaced from its home and is genuinely confused? Or is this an animal that is exhibiting symptoms of distemper?” she explains.

“Unfortunately, the virus is fatal, so we try to ease their suffering by providing humane euthanasia to most of these animals and … by getting to them [quickly], we can help curb some of the spread up the virus.”

Toronto Animal Services is currently prioritizing sick and injured raccoons and Herzog-Evans says they’re trying their best to respond to all such calls within two hours. Calls for the removal of dead animals will likely take longer due to the volume they are experiencing.

“We do ask the public for patience as we go through this outbreak. Our staff are out there, they’re working really hard and … we understand that people are frustrated by the nuisance that a cadaver not being removed immediately can cause. But our focus is to help the actual suffering animals,” she says.

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