North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

June 9, 2010

Distemper detected in area

By Ben Montgomery
The North Jefferson News

NORTH JEFFERSON — Gardendale police say they have euthanized around 10 wild animals over the past few weeks that have been infected with distemper, all of them raccoons except for one fox.

“I wish we didn’t have to be involved with this, but, like many other non-police related issues, there’s no one else to do it locally,” said Gardendale Chief of Police Mike Walker.

Walker said officers rarely have trouble catching the animals because their illness is usually so advanced that they are completely unaware of their surroundings. He said they have lost their fear of humans, and that they probably only have a day or two left to live when they are caught and euthanized.

Distemper is an airborne virus that enters animals’ upper respiratory systems, according to Dr. Stephen Stewart, a veterinarian at Stewart animal clinic in Warrior. He said the disease manifesting in foxes and raccoons might indicate that it is canine distemper. He said humans cannot contract distemper from an infected animal, but it is possible for dogs to catch it if they come in direct contact with an infected animal. In rare cases, pets can become infected if they wander into an area where a wild animal with distemper was recently.

“It is a virus, so there’s no real cure,” said Stewart. “Supportive care is one way to treat it. If you keep the animal strong and stimulate its immune system, they can get over it.” Stewart said administering vitamin C to the animals had been a successful way to help fight the disease.

“It can be mild, and the dog might not be obviously sick,” he said. “If it gets bad enough, it can attack the central nervous system and cause seizures and convulsions.”

Stewart said limiting exposure to wildlife can help, but both he and another veterinarian, Dr. Andrew Thompson of the Gardendale Pet Clinic, said the best prevention is a vaccine.

“I used to see a fair amount of distemper, but not as much now,” said Thompson. “The vaccine is working really well.” A vaccine at the Gardendale Pet Clinic is $18, and protects against other illnesses in addition to canine distemper. Thompson said puppies are especially susceptible, but that adult dogs could become infected if they don’t have immunity.

Chris Cook, a wildlife biologist with Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said distemper is a common problem, but it can have major effects on wildlife.

“Typically it’s just one or two, but it can sometimes kill quite a few,” said Cook. “It can knock back a population. It usually won’t eradicate them, but it can take quit a few out... But, populations usually rebound.”

Cook said some studies show that as much as 60% of raccoon deaths could be attributed to distemper.

“The first thing people think when they see an animal being lethargic or acting strange is that they have rabies,” he said. “Distemper is actually much more common.”

Thompson said canine distemper can infect almost any canine, including coyotes and wolves. He said cats have their own strain of distemper and that they are not in danger of catching canine distemper.