Distemper in Wildlife

What is canine distemper virus?

As its name implies, canine distemper virus (“distemper” or CDV) is a disease of domestic dogs. Skunks and raccoons — dogs’ distant cousins — can also be affected. Most of our pets are vaccinated against distemper, so it isn’t seen very often in domestic populations. Wild animals aren’t lucky enough to get vaccines, so skunks and raccoons can get sick.

Distemper in Wildlife

  • Animals with distemper may approach people, or curl up to sleep in open areas in close proximity to people. They generally act disoriented or lethargic.  People seeing raccoons or skunks with distemper often think that they have rabies, but no animals other than bats have tested positive for rabies in Windsor/ Essex since 1994. 

  • Canine distemper does not pose a threat to human health. Dogs that have not been vaccinated for distemper can become infected if they come in contact with an animal with distemper.

  • If residents notice a raccoon or skunk displaying abnormal behaviour, they should keep their pets away from the animal and call your municipality’s animal control provider (in Windsor and Amherstburg the Humane Society at 519-966-5751, residents of other municipalities click here for info), or police for advice.  

  • If an animal is believed to have distemper you may be asked to confine it. This can normally be easily done by approaching them from behind and placing a recycle bin over them. The bin can then be weighted with a brick or other heavy object to ensure the animal can’t escape. 

What is normal raccoon behaviour?

  • Raccoons in an urban setting can become quite tame and seem to have little or no fear of humans.

  • They are nocturnal and sleep during the day however during breeding season you may see an active raccoon during daylight hours.

  • Raccoons may also be seen during the day if they have been flushed from hiding.

  • They are not true hibernators which means they may be seen during the mild winter weather.

  • Raccoons are only aggressive if cornered – they would sooner run away if confronted.

What is abnormal raccoon behaviour?

  • They appear blind and confused and may wander aimlessly and may become aggressive if cornered.

  • A mucus discharge will often be present around the eyes and nose and may be accompanied by coughing, tremors, seizures or chewing fits.

Is there a cure for distemper?

Sadly, no. Dogs diagnosed in the very early stages of the disease may survive with supportive care, but they are likely to have neurological issues for the rest of their lives. Skunks and raccoons are usually not found with distemper until the very late stages. By that point, the neurological damage is permanent. Humane euthanasia is the kindest option.

Who is responsible for helping these animals?

In our area, only the municipalities of Windsor, Amherstburg, Essex, Kingsville, Tecumseh, and Leamington have ensured that their animal control providers will respond to calls about raccoons with distemper. While the Humane Society may be able to assist rather than leaving the animal in distress, this should be a service provided by your municipality. If you live in LaSalle or Lakeshore please let your councillor know that you believe your municipal animal control agreement should include responding to calls about sick and injured wildlife.