Eleven cases of raccoons with distemper since Sept. 1—all from Wild Horse Creek—have the utmost attention of Angel Wintrode, director of Bi-State Wildlife Hotline, a nonprofit organization that assists the public with sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife.
Wildwood residents should double-check the currency of their dogs' vaccinations, due to the possible exposure to this deadly disease, said Wintrode. Puppies are especially vulnerable to it, and there is no cure.
"Our organization normally helps residents with wildlife education and takes in sick and orphaned wildlife, heals or raises them, then releases them back to the wild when they are well or old enough to survive again on their own," said Wintrode.
"Lately though, we are getting an abnormal amount of calls from the Wild Horse Creek area concerning sick raccoons. We’re noticing that lately these calls are concentrated in one area."
She said her organization is the only one in the St. Louis area that will rescue and pick up a sick animal in this way, including the St. Louis County Animal Control Department. "Letting nature take its course on your deck, in front of your children, isn't always a great option. That's where we come in."
Affected raccoons are sick with a canine disease called distemper, she said, which causes an animal to have severe brain swelling. The condition makes them act as though they are drunk, walking in slow motion, stumbling, staying out during the day wandering aimlessly, and often dragging their hind end along with them not using their back legs properly.
The animal also may have yellow discharge from their eyes and a lot of nasal drainage as well, said Wintrode.
She said animals with distemper are not aggressive, but they do not run away from people or dogs either, making it a fairly high-risk situation for residents, their children and their pets.
"Distemper is contagious to dogs – not people – and that is where our main concern lies. We want to make sure that the area residents are aware of this outbreak, so that they can check with their veterinarian to ensure that their dogs are up-to-date on their distemper vaccinations," she said.
Cats cannot get this disease, and neither can humans, she reiterated.
"Many of our callers are concerned that the raccoon has rabies when they see it out during the day. While that is remotely possible in raccoons, the state of Missouri has not had a reported case of rabies in raccoons in over 60 years," she said she wanted Patch readers to know. "It is much more likely that the animal has distemper opposed to rabies."
If Wildwood residents come in contact with a raccoon that looks sick, residents can reach the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline 24 hours a day at 636-492-1610.
Wintrode said, as a nonprofit organization, they request donations when they make house calls, especially considering these cases require them to humanely euthanize the animal, costing the organization roughly $20 per animal. "However in comparison to the hundreds of dollars that a pest control company would charge, our requested donation is not normally something that residents have any complaints about," she said.
Why a Distemper Outbreak?
Wintrode reasons that a lack of a really cold winter in the St. Louis area last year may be a factor in the current raccoon population. "Typically, wildlife dies in the woods where we don't see them. For some reason, raccoons often seek out people when they are ill, probably from having experienced kindness from a person at some point," she said.
Perhaps the drought this summer left only a few reliable water sources for wildlife, such as at Wild Horse Creek and Rockwoods Reservation. Wintrode said distemper spreads like flu, through nasal secretions and nose-to-nose contact. That's why it's important to not allow dogs to interact with raccoons that are lying in yards or around one's house where they typically would not be.
Wintrode said distemper lives within about a 4-hour window until the virus dies off, once an area is exposed. "It's not a good situation for dogs to sniff around an area just abandoned by a raccoon," she said.
"The trick is that raccoons have to be sick enough for us to catch them. So it's a balancing act of timing."