PROVIDENCE - The Department of Environmental Management is cautioning dog owners about the re-emergence of a dog disease that is now considered rare in Rhode Island. Canine distemper was recently diagnosed in a raccoon on Prudence Island. The raccoon was submitted for testing after Island residents notified DEM about numerous raccoon deaths and a large number of raccoons that displayed abnormal behavior. DEM and the Department of Health worked with local authorities to first rule out rabies as a possible cause. When rabies was not confirmed, DEM authorized testing for canine distemper virus, which was confirmed.
Canine distemper does not affect humans. It is a virus that usually affects dogs, but can also infect raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and other wildlife. Infection in wildlife usually results in the death of the infected animal, and the disease can spread rapidly throughout a population of susceptible animals. Although there is a very effective vaccine against canine distemper that is available for use in dogs, there is no vaccine licensed for use in wildlife.
Signs of canine distemper virus infection in dogs and other animals can include respiratory signs such as cough and difficult breathing. The disease will then usually progress to involve the central nervous system and animals will then show signs of depression, abnormal behavior, abnormal gait, and eventual death. The signs of distemper infection can look identical to the signs of rabies and only laboratory tests can be used to differentiate between the two. Cats are usually resistant to infection with canine distemper virus.
Rhode Island State Veterinarian Scott Marshall, DVM is advising all dog owners to contact their veterinarian to determine if their dog is properly vaccinated against distemper and rabies. Dr. Marshall also offers the following advice in order to protect pets and property:
- Secure all garbage so that wild animals are not attracted
- Do not feed cats and dogs outdoors as wild animals are often attracted to the food
- Avoid all contact with wild animals, especially those that appear sick
- Report all contact between wild animals and humans, or between wild animals and domestic animals to your local animal control officer or police department
- Do not allow dogs and cats to run at large
- Confine your pets to avoid contact with wildlife
According to Dr. Marshall, rabies and distemper can look exactly alike. "Canine distemper is no threat to people, but rabies can be deadly," he said. "Residents must not make any assumptions about which disease a sick wild animal may have. Instead, people need to immediately report all contact with wildlife to the proper authorities."