Here’s what you need to know about distemper


This past fall, urban areas experienced a reported spike of canine distemper virus in raccoons. While the highly contagious viral illness never entirely goes away—it typically peaks in the fall and spring—this year’s increased incidence of infections may be connected to the late onset of sub-zero temperatures.

“Normally raccoons would be hunkered down in attics or chimneys during extreme cold periods—they were more active this winter,” says Bill Dowd, president of Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control.

Although the distemper uptick was most apparent in cities, cottagers and those who come into regular contact with wild animals should be able to identify the disease. Here’s what you need to know:

What are the symptoms of distemper? 

Distemper affects animals’ respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems—and can be fatal.

Although symptoms differ based on which part of the brain is affected by the virus, be on the lookout for animals that are acting abnormally. They may be out at an unusual time of the day or year, or may show aggression, a lack of awareness, or a lack of fear. They may also exhibit symptoms that we typically associate with illness, including diarrhoea, vomiting, coughing, or discharge from around the nose and eyes.

How do I tell the difference between distemper and rabies?

Unfortunately, you can’t. Doug Campbell, a wildlife pathologist with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), and Claire Jardine, an associate professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, warn that animals with rabies can exhibit the same signs as those with distemper. Since rabies can spread to humans, it’s important to be careful when you come across an ill animal.

According to Campbell and Jardine, “any bite or close contact with a wild animal is a concern because of the possibility that the animal is rabid.”

If you come into contact with any wildlife acting suspiciously, contact your local health unit as soon as possible.

What animals can contract distemper?

Although it originates in dogs, evidence of the disease has been reported in Canadian wildlife such as fishers, ferrets, and weasels, as well as canids such as foxes and coyotes.

By far, raccoons and skunks are hit the hardest—according to the CWHC, distemper continues to be the most common infectious disease causing death in those species.

Is my pet at risk?

Canine distemper rarely occurs in areas where dogs are vaccinated. However, it is more common in remote communities with little or no veterinary services, and may cause epidemics. Young, unvaccinated puppies are at the greatest risk, with the highly infectious virus being passed from dog-to-dog or dog-to-raccoon through oral, respiratory, and ocular secretions—such as sneezing, coughing, and sharing water bowls. If your pet has had any contact with strange wildlife, contact your vet.

How can I help prevent the spread of distemper?

“Raccoons are most vulnerable to distemper since they congregate together and share a multitude of attics and chimneys as their den sites,” says Dowd.

In order to help prevent the spread of distemper, he recommends reducing the number of den sites by animal-proofing your home and property.

What should I do if I suspect an animal is infected? 

If you spot a wild raccoon, skunk, or other animal acting abnormally, call your local animal control department. In Ontario, you can also contact the Ministry of Natural Resources rabies hotline at 1-888-574-6656. If you find a dead wild animal, call the CWHC toll-free at 1-866-673-4781.