Distemper is a leading cause of death among raccoons. Raccoons can contract both canine and feline distemper, which are caused by two completely different viruses. Both are highly contagious and can cause acute illness and death.
Canine distemper in raccoons usually progresses slowly. It starts out as an upper respiratory infection with a runny nose and watery eyes and develops into conjunctivitis. A raccoon can develop pneumonia, lose weight, and have diarrhea. In the final stage, it may become disoriented, wander aimlessly in a circle, become paralyzed, or display other unusual behavior caused by brain damage. These symptoms can easily be mistaken for rabies. The illness can be spread through airborne droplets, contact with bodily fluids, saliva, or raccoon droppings.
Feline distemper usually begins with a high fever and later leads to depression, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and leukopenia, or a reduction in the number of white blood cells. It rarely lasts more than a week and can kill up to 100 percent of infected raccoons. Feline distemper is shed in all bodily secretions and excretions and can also be spread by fleas and other insects, especially flies.
There is no treatment for canine or feline distemper. Raccoons that are infected are generally euthanized. Distemper outbreaks can be controlled by removing infected animal carcasses, vaccinating domestic animals, and controlling wildlife populations. Canine distemper can be inactivated by heat, formalin, and disinfectants. Surfaces can be disinfected with a bleach solution.
Owners of dogs and cats should have their pets vaccinated for distemper. Ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper because it can be fatal in them. Wildlife rehabilitators should quarantine animals until they are found to have a clean bill of health. Humans cannot contract distemper.