Despite the word canine in its name, canine distemper affects not only dogs but skunks, foxes and large cats, such as lions and tigers.

Over the past few weeks, three raccoons in Mill Valley were reported to Marin Humane as behaving strangely. When our animal services officers arrived and viewed the raccoons, they suspected the deadly and highly contagious canine distemper virus was to blame.

Despite the word canine in its name, canine distemper affects not only dogs but skunks, foxes and large cats, such as lions and tigers. The virus infects the lungs, airways, nose and eyes, and can also infect the brain and suppress the immune system.

Symptoms of canine distemper may include:

• Runny nose and watery eyes developing into conjunctivitis (the most visible symptoms)

• Weight loss

• Disorientation, including walking in circles

• Extreme lethargy

• Seizures

• Vomiting and diarrhea

Interestingly, the virus doesn’t cause illness in domestic cats or people, though domestic cats can become ill from a different virus that is sometimes referred to as feline distemper. This cat virus is more accurately called the panleukopenia virus and is not related to the canine distemper virus.

Wildlife are often the ‘reservoir’ for distemper outbreaks in unvaccinated dogs that have contact with wild animals,” says Belinda Evans, director of shelter medicine at Marin Humane. “Fortunately, the vaccine for canine distemper is highly effective, so it’s crucial we vaccinate our pets.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Puppies and unvaccinated dogs most often become infected through airborne exposure (through sneezing or coughing) to the virus from an infected dog or wild animal. The virus can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls and equipment. Infected dogs can shed the virus for months, and mother dogs can pass the virus through the placenta to their puppies. Distemper is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage.

Pet vaccinations, like those for humans, may sometimes require a booster to keep them effective. They break down into two categories: core vaccinations, which are recommended for every pet, and non-core, which are recommended based on your pet’s activity. For example, rabies, distemper and parvovirus are among the core vaccines where leptospirosis is a non-core vaccine and only given to some dogs. Your best bet is to discuss what’s right for your pet with your trusted veterinarian.

While it’s imperative to vaccinate our pets, the experts at WildCare don’t think there’s reason to panic about the recent cases of distemper.

“We’re fortunate to have a low incidence of it in our area,” says Melanie Piazza, director of animal care at WildCare. “The disease tends to run in cycles, appearing approximately every seven years. It has been 12 years since the last outbreak, so this isn’t unexpected.”

If you notice wildlife behaving strangely, remember to keep yourself and your pets at a distance — for your safety and theirs — and call Marin Humane at 415-883-4621 or WildCare at 415-456-7283.

Sadly, there is no cure for canine distemper but infected wildlife can be humanely euthanized, preventing a slow death as well as the spread of the virus.

Originally published at mij