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Animal House: Distemper Plagues Pets and Wildlife Alike

Cute puppy
Flickr via Creative Commons
Protect your puppy with a distemper vaccination.

Reports of raccoons behaving strangely in Illinois and Ohio this spring revealed a problems that can kill both wildlife and domestic pets.

  • The raccoons were dubbed "zombies" for their odd behavior. The raccoons would stagger on their hind legs and approach humans. The animals would then bare their teeth and topple over before rising and staggering forward again.
  • The illness with which these animal were inflicted had nothing to do with a George Romero movie.  Authorities determined it was distemper, a contagious and potentially deadly viral disease that can impact both wildlife and pets.
  • According to Dr. Matt Fraker with the Prairie Oak Veterinary Center in Normal, all dogs should be vaccinated against distemper when they are puppies.
  • Distemper is actually closely related to the measles virus in humans. Don't worry, though. You won't catch distemper from your pet.
  • It's primarily known as a disease of domestic dogs. Feline distemper is actually a similar virus to canine parvo virus. Go figure.
  • Distemper can eradicate wildlife. While raccoon numbers aren't threatened, black footed ferrets and African wild dogs can also be infected with this virus and those losses can be a conservation issue when distemper gets loose in their populations.
  • Distemper can show up in pockets across the map. Cook County in Illinois has reports of the so-called zombie raccoons.
  • Puppies are especially susceptible. While nursing, they have protection via their mother. But once weaned and before they have their vaccines, they are susceptible if exposed to the virus.
  • Vaccination is critical to protect your pet!

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.