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‘Zombie raccoons’ can walk on back legs — and are a danger to dogs, Illinois cops say

Raccoons have distemper, a respiratory virus deadly to dogs that are not vaccinated

Dr. Melissa Kennedy, section chief of the Virology Laboratory at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, talks about canine distemper virus. Vaccination remains the best defense against the contagious virus
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Dr. Melissa Kennedy, section chief of the Virology Laboratory at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, talks about canine distemper virus. Vaccination remains the best defense against the contagious virus

“Zombie raccoons” have been spotted stumbling around a Chicago suburb — and dog owners need to be aware of the risks those critters pose, according to a warning from the Riverside Police Department.

Those raccoons, which were “displaying abnormal neurologic signs,” were infected with the canine distemper virus, police confirmed in a May 13 news release.

And they are called “zombie raccoons” because of what they may do when they carry the disease, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The virus “can cause the infected animals to walk on their hind legs, stagger and bare their teeth,” the newspaper reported.

Police in Riverside have responded to three different “zombie raccoon” encounters, the news release says, and now the department wants pet owners to “prepare and protect their pets from the distemper virus” that some raccoons are carrying.

“The distemper virus affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system of dogs,” police said in the release.

To protect your dogs from the virus, police said owners should supervise their animals while outside — even while in a fenced yard — and vaccinate their pets.

“Canine distemper is entirely preventable,” the American Kennel Club says. To prevent it, the AKC recommends that puppies “get the full series of distemper vaccinations” and that dogs stay up to date with the vaccinations.

Owners should also keep dogs away from wildlife and other dogs that have not been vaccinated, the society says.

“Puppies and dogs most often become infected through airborne exposure (through sneezing or coughing) to the virus from an infected dog or wild animal,” the American Veterinary Medical Association says. “The virus can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls and equipment.

A raccoon in St. Paul Minnesota got attention for climbing an office tower in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. Social media users are using the hashtag #mprraccoon to track the raccoon that scaled more than 20 stories.

“Because canine distemper also impacts wildlife populations, contact between wild animals and domestic dogs can facilitate the spread of the virus,” the AVMA continued. “Canine distemper outbreaks in local raccoon populations can signal increased risk for pet dogs in the area.”

Dogs that have become infected will show many symptoms, including vomiting, muscles twitches and seizures, according to the AVMA.

“The virus may also cause the footpads to thicken and harden, leading to its nickname ‘hard pad disease,’” the association said. “In wildlife, infection with canine distemper closely resembles rabies. Distemper is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage.”

This is not the first time “zombie raccoons” have been spotted in the suburb, police said.

“It seems every year around this time we get a rise in calls about raccoons acting oddly and we respond to calls about raccoons that may be a danger to the public,” Chief Tom Weitzel said in the news release.

“We’ve had a number of cases concerning raccoons with distemper in our jurisdiction,” he continued. “If you see a sick raccoon that may be a threat to public safety, call the police.”

He said the department’s policy is to “put down animals that are suffering or pose a threat to public safety.”

Last year, in Belleville, Illinois, six raccoons were shot and killed because they showed signs of distemper, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.

“Distemper is a fatal disease for raccoons and they can suffer greatly from it. So in most instances they are euthanized,” a police captain said at the time.

“Zombie raccoons” were also spotted in Ohio last April, McClatchy reported.

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