Distemper Taking a Toll On Missouri Raccoons

By Jim Low, Missouri Dept. of Conservation

First posted on 01-16-2009

Missourians are seeing more than the usual number of sick or dead raccoons this winter, but the Missouri Department of Conservation says the animals pose no threat to people or to properly vaccinated pets.

Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer said he is receiving a larger-than-normal number of reports of sick raccoons. Tests on diseased raccoons show that approximately 60 percent have canine distemper.

The canine distemper virus affects unvaccinated dogs, along with foxes, coyotes, skunks, minks, otters, ferrets and bobcats. It does not affect domestic cats or humans. The virus spreads through direct contact between animals or by contact with infected animals’ feces, urine or body secretions. Obvious symptoms include runny nose and eyes, cough, diarrhea and vomiting.

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is the Show-Me State’s most recognizable furbearer, with its ringed tail and trademark black face mask. It also is one of the state’s most common furbearers. The species’ amazing adaptability enables the 7- to 20-pound animals to survive almost anywhere, from urban areas to wilderness and from swamps to prairies. They have adapted so well to changes brought about by humans that Missouri has more raccoons now than at any time in history. With an average population density of approximately 20 per square mile, raccoons number approximately 1.4 million in Missouri.

The success of the species is not always good news for individual raccoons, however. More raccoons means more opportunities to come into contact with each other, and more opportunities to spread diseases. That creates ideal conditions for spread of the canine distemper virus.

Beringer said coyotes and other furbearers also are affected by the current canine distemper outbreak. However, raccoons are particularly at risk because of their large numbers and because of their habit of denning together in hollow trees and other enclosed spaces during cold weather.

Although canine distemper is effective in controlling raccoon numbers, it also represents the loss of valuable resources. Trappers get $5 to $21 for each raccoon pelt they take to market, and some sell raccoon carcasses to people who prize them as the main ingredient for barbecued or baked raccoon.

Missouri’s annual raccoon catch is more than 100,000 animals. Trapping activity in Missouri increases or decreases according to world demand for pelts. The global nature of the fur trade is evident in pelt price declines when Eurasia experiences a warm winter or an economic downturn. This year, political and military tensions between the Russian Federation and Georgia have cut into fur prices.

The increased trapping activity that accompanies high fur prices tends to keep raccoon numbers in check, reducing the severity of distemper outbreaks.

“Raccoon numbers can vary dramatically,” said Beringer, “but where food and cover are abundant and harvest is missing, they can be superabundant. That leads to situations like we are seeing in Missouri this year. Trapping keeps the raccoon population smaller and healthier.”

Most wild raccoons live five years or less. Pioneering mammalogists Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz estimated it takes approximately 6.5 years to replace all the individuals in a raccoon population.

-Jim Low-