By Terry Spencer, DVM
Before I became a veterinarian I did things that now would make me cringe. For example, one morning while hiking I found this adorable, nearly hairless lump of flesh in the leaf litter under a large oak tree. Possessing the curiosity of a cat, I scooped it up and examined it. The tiny eyes weren’t yet open, but they had a distinct darkly pigmented mask over the skin. It was definitely a newborn raccoon. Seeing no mother raccoon nearby, I took the baby home and raised it. It was a lot of work feeding it every few hours, wiping its tiny bottom, and keeping it warm. But it lived! I brought it home scraps of fish and scallops from the seafood restaurant where I worked putting myself through college. I taught it how to wash its food in water bowls. It followed me everywhere I hiked—even without a leash. Then, when he was old enough, he took off to do whatever raccoons normally do. At first, he would visit nightly on my deck stopping long enough to picnic on some pieces of dog food. Eventually, he stopped visiting. I always hoped that meant he had become a self-sufficient raccoon who just had a rocky start in life.
I would never do that now. During veterinary school I learned all the reasons why people should not handle wild raccoons. Knowing what I know now, it is a wonder I survived my youth. I was a female Dr. Doolittle with a death wish.
Some researcher should certainly study the immune systems of raccoons. How is it possible that these creatures can carry several types of diseases that are deadly to other species, yet seldom show any symptoms? Those adorable masked creatures apparently act like cockroaches. Raccoons have adapted to living in urban, suburban, and wild areas all over Florida. And wherever they live, they can spread disease.
Here in Florida, raccoons carry rabies. Rabies is a virus that is almost 100% fatal to mammals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and humans. Since rabies is zoonotic (it is possible for an animal to spread the virus it to a human), it is a major public health concern. Oddly enough, raccoons seem to carry the disease and remain symptom free. This is one reason the Florida Wildlife Commission does not allow the trapping and relocation of raccoons. Every time you move a wild raccoon, you increase the risk of spreading rabies. The Florida Department of Health works jointly with the Florida Wildlife Commission to vaccinate wild raccoons by placing oral rabies vaccine “bait” where wild raccoons will eat the smelly fish-flavored cubes. The program seems successful. Over the past few years, the number of documented rabies cases attributed to a virus strain from raccoons has dropped in those locations where rabies baits were placed. That doesn’t mean feeding or handling raccoons is safe, though. Not every raccoon has taken the bait. That is why veterinarians vaccinate your dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, and cattle against rabies; so your pets can’t catch rabies from wildlife and spread the deadly virus to you.
Raccoons also spread canine distemper virus. Distemper virus can be deadly for dogs that are not properly vaccinated. Distemper virus starts out looking like a simple “kennel cough.” Usually it goes away in a few days, although some dogs get pneumonia first. A few months later, just when the dog seems fine, distemper returns with tremors, seizures, and death. Puppies are at greater risk of serious problems from distemper virus than adult dogs. . Dogs that survive distemper are likely immune, but may shed the virus for months. Here in Florida, I have witnessed widespread outbreaks of distemper virus in dogs. Fortunately, your veterinarian can vaccinate your dog against distemper.
Wherever raccoons urinate, they can spread a deadly bacterium called Leptospirosis. “Lepto” is also potentially zoonotic to you, the pet owner. Your dog walks on the same ground where the raccoons urinate and then becomes infected. Once infected, this bacterium affects the dog’s kidneys and liver. When your infected pet urinates, it can expose you. I see symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs here in Pasco County quite often. Again, your veterinarian can vaccinate your pet against Leptospirosis.
Lastly, raccoons spread roundworm eggs in their feces. One particular species of raccoon roundworm, known as Baylis ascaris, is particularly dangerous for children. Because raccoons tend to defecate in “latrines” where they deposit their feces regularly, microscopic roundworm eggs become highly concentrated. Children playing in the dirt accidentally get exposed to these high concentrations of roundworm eggs. Once swallowed, the roundworm egg hatches, travels to the child’s brain, and causes permanent damage. When I lived in Northern California a few years ago, a 3-year-old girl went blind after playing in her own back yard and becoming infected with raccoon roundworm. I don’t want this to happen to any of my clients here in Florida.
After you read this you will probably think I am a raccoon bigot. Really, I am not. I am just a veterinarian, trained to protect the public from zoonotic diseases and to protect animals from infectious diseases. This is what I do. My relationship with raccoons these days is a bit rockier than it once was, but I still adore them. I just watch from a distance.