2010 was a record year for cases of animal distemperment in Michigan, with 2011 shaping up to be another year of high incidence. We most certainly noticed this increase at Creature Control; for example, until recently, it was normal to get about a dozen calls per year to pick up distempered animals, especially raccoons and skunks. In 2010, we received four times that amount, with even more calls from concerned pet owners inquiring about the disease. The outbreak is not restricted to Michigan; increases in distemperment incidences have been noted in Washington State, Kansas, Texas, Florida, and even as far away as Toronto. It is unknown how the epidemic came to Michigan, but the first reports of an outbreak in the state came out of Manistee County in 2008. From there it has spread throughout the state.
But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves: What is animal distemperment, anyway?
Distemperment (sometimes simply called “distemper”) is a disease that affects raccoons, skunks and other small mammals; it can be spread to cats and dogs as well. Distemperment is a virus that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems of affected animals and is always fatal. Though humans cannot contract distemperment, it is of particular concern due to the fact that it can (and frequently does) spread from raccoons and skunks into domesticated dogs and cats, at which point it is usually termed canine or feline distemperment. The virus is spread through the air by means of nasal discharge, coughing and sneezing.
Symptoms of Distemper
Initially, distempered animals may discharge fluid from their eyes and nose and may sneeze or drool excessively. As the disease progresses, an animal infected by distemper will begin to exhibit strange behavior. They will act sick and confused and will often appear dazed; they may stagger when they walk. Besides staggering and clumsiness, they will begin to fall down as the disease enters its last stage, the neurological phase. At this point the animal will begin to have seizures that will eventually lead to death. Once distemperment is evident in an animal the disease progresses rapidly, killing the host in up to two weeks. Most people who have had encounters with distempered animals say that the animal is “acting drunk” (see video below).
Animal distemper is almost always mistaken for rabies. Though the diseases do share many things in common, they are distinct. For one thing, distempered animals do not foam at the mouth, which is a common sign of rabies. Rabies can spread to humans, and indeed can effect a broad variety of animals, whereas distemperment is limited to canines, felines and members of the weasel families, as well as raccoons. Rabies is contracted only by bites from infected animals whereas distemperment can be spread through the air. Compared to distemper, rabies is quite rare; distemperment is much more common. In fact, until the past generation, distemperment was the most common fatal disease of dogs.
There is no cure for distemper. If your dog or cat has contracted the disease, the veterinarian may be able to treat the symptoms, but there is no cure for distemperment itself. Part of the problem is that distemperment is very difficult to diagnose until it has already reached the neurological stage, when the odd behavior begins. By this time it is too late. Treatment of distemper in pets is up to the individual conscience of the pet owner, of course, although most vets and animal control professionals recommend putting distempered animals to sleep.
Though there is no cure for distemperment, It is possible to vaccinate pets against the disease to prevent them from contracting it to begin with. The basic vaccine for dogs is “the distemper shot”, which protects against distemper, parvovirus, and other diseases. The vaccinations need to be repeated in order to keep your pet immune, however. Vets generally recommend a vaccination every 2 to 4 weeks from 12 to 16 weeks of age and an ongoing schedule of booster shots every 1 to 3 years afterward.
One common symptom, is that distemper causes normally nocturnal animals, such as raccoons, to wander about in broad daylight. If your dog or cat suffers from distemperment, see a veterinarian immediately. If you should run across a distempered wild animal, like a raccoon or skunk stumbling around your yard, call an animal control professional, such as Creature Control. Distempered animals can be dangerous, not because distemperment necessarily makes animals more aggressive, but because distempered animals usually have impaired vision and are more frightened (and it is usually when an animal is frightened that it will bite). This is a concern because distempered animals may appear tame do to their slow, clumsy behavior. Do not approach or touch a distempered animal – call an animal control professional to remove it safely.