By Chas Moore, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Have you ever been walking in the woods and noticed a raccoon that just did not act quite right? Perhaps it was not scared of you at all and may have even approached you. Or, maybe you have noticed one wandering around aimlessly in the middle of the day. These could be signs there was something wrong with that particular raccoon.
Raccoons are nocturnal, meaning they are usually active at night. They are almost always afraid of humans, and will run for cover when confronted under normal conditions. In urban areas, raccoons often make their homes near commercial or office buildings, as they are very adaptable and have learned to cope and even thrive in developed areas. As long as food and water are available, raccoons will probably be present. Finding food usually is not a problem for raccoons. They are omnivorous creatures and will eat just about whatever is available. Since raccoons are so adaptable and many live right alongside humans, they often become pests that raid garbage cans, gardens, pet food and commercial crops. This proximity to where humans live and work is what makes raccoons a potential hazard to humans and their pets.
Two major diseases affect raccoons and may pose threats to humans and their pets. These are rabies and canine distemper. Rabies can be deadly to humans and pets, while canine distemper affects only pets.
Rabies is a virus that is found in mammals. It primarily occurs in carnivores and omnivores and can be easily transmitted from affected animals to others, including humans, through bodily fluids such as saliva and blood. There are many strains of rabies. One in particular affecting raccoons has been dubbed “raccoon rabies.” This form is predominately found in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama. But it has been found elsewhere due to ill-advised human releases of translocated raccoons, mostly by raccoon hunters trying to supplement a population.
Raccoons, as well as other infected animals, display clinical signs of rabies in one of two forms. There is a “dumb” form and a “furious” form of rabies. Dumb rabies is characterized by aimless wandering, lack of coordination, weak hind legs and lethargy. The furious form is causes an animal to attack whatever is moving, including itself. Whatever the strain or form, rabies can be passed to humans and is always lethal if left untreated.
Canine distemper has many signs similar to rabies, such as the lack of fear of humans. Experiencing frequent convulsions is probably the most distinct sign of distemper, along with tremors and a white mucous-like discharge coming from the nose and eyes of the infected animal. Canine distemper accounts for 60 percent of reported sick raccoons, which makes it a significant threat to raccoon populations. It is transmissible to gray foxes, coyotes, and perhaps pets, but what makes it a serious concern is that it can be transmitted through casual contact.
Whatever the disease, it is extremely important for people to avoid contact with a suspected sick raccoon. Feed your pets in areas where wild animals cannot enter and do not leave garbage in areas accessible by raccoons. Fur trappers and raccoon hunters should use precautions to protect themselves from exposure and be on the lookout for any unusual symptoms of any raccoons they encounter. Dogs used to hunt raccoons should also be protected. Never approach or attempt to catch a raccoon. Strange acting animals, including raccoons, should be left alone.