Pet owners, beware of distemper outbreak

April 20, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

King County and state wildlife officials encouraged residents to avoid feeding wildlife, keep domestic pets away from wild animals and ensure pets have updated vaccinations, in response to a canine distemper outbreak last week.

King County Animal Care and Control responded to a report of a raccoon believed to have distemper in Gilman Village just after noon April 9. Officers took the animal into custody and had the animal euthanized by a local veterinarian. King County spokeswoman Christine Lange said officers did not take the animal to a shelter due to the highly contagious nature of canine distemper.

Officials also received reports of sick raccoons in Bellevue, Redmond and Renton. Officers also picked up three raccoon carcasses on the Eastside in recent days.

The county then submitted samples from a raccoon collected in Bellevue to Washington State University for disease testing. Results from the university lab confirmed the animal had canine distemper, Lange said.

Humans cannot contract canine distemper, but the disease spreads among dogs and ferrets, as well as wild animals, such as raccoons, coyotes, skunks and weasels.

“Dogs are normally vaccinated against canine distemper, but the disease has become generally uncommon and some pet owners are not getting their pets vaccinated,” Dr. Sharon Hopkins, the veterinarian for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in a news release. “If you have questions or concerns about your pets’ immunity to canine distemper, contact your veterinarian.”

Distemper causes encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, in animals. Veterinarians said infected animals might have runny eyes and stagger, tremble, and foam at the mouth or snap. Daytime activity by a raccoon does not necessarily indicate the animal has distemper.

“Wildlife disease epidemics tend to occur in cycles, appearing when animal populations are high,” Kristin Mansfield, staff veterinarian with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in the release.

Officials recommended for residents to feed pets indoors, and secure garbage and compost; bird feeders and chicken feed also attract raccoons. Residents should also secure pet doors to keep raccoons from coming indoors.

“While we have seen an increase in the number of raccoons this year at our wildlife hospital that appear to be infected with canine distemper, we encourage people not to panic,” Dr. John Huckabee, wildlife veterinarian for PAWS, said in the release. “The best way to avoid potential exposure to pet dogs and ferrets is to avoid feeding or otherwise attracting wildlife, intentionally or unintentionally.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

Tips for dealing with canine distemper and ill wildlife
Department of Fish and Wildlife officials offer advice for dealing with problem wildlife here. PAWS Wildlife Center also offers tips for solving conflicts. Call 787-2500, ext. 817.
Residents who encounter raccoons exhibiting symptoms of distemper should call 206-296-PETS for information and suggestions about potential resources. King County Animal Care and Control officers will also pick up raccoon carcasses.
Raccoons also present a risk of transmitting other diseases, such as leptospirosis, raccoon roundworm and rabies. Learn more here.
People bitten by raccoons should contact their healthcare provider and public health officials at 206-296-4774. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintains a list of nuisance wildlife control operators, who are licensed by the department to respond to problem wildlife. Call 775-1311.
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