Reprinted with permission from SPDR Speaks!, a publication of Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue, Summer 2010.
They look so endearing with their black mask and nimble paws that wash and wet their food prior to eating it, yet raccoons can pose a real threat to you and your pets.
Even large dogs can come out on the losing end if they tangle with a raccoon. Besides injuring your dog, raccoons can also pass along distemper and an especially nasty type of roundworm.
They are probably more common now than when America was first settled, and their numbers are more dense in the city than in the suburbs. That's because they find ample food and snug living quarters near people.
Problem raccoons are essentially a problem of our own making because raccoons are just doing what works for them - eating pet food that's been fed or left outdoors, getting into garbage not secured, foraging in vegetable gardens or compost piles with food scraps, even dining on fallen fruit. They love water features, especially those with fish, and chicken coops. If there is a way into an attic or crawl space, they will set up housekeeping and can be really difficult to move out.
A veterinary clinic in Magnolia says it sees dogs attacked by a raccoon about every two weeks. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says that 90% of their calls reporting problem wildlife are for raccoons. They even show up on the news with some regularity because of attacks on pets and their owners.
One local story: a 35-pound raccoon attacks a small dog on a deck. The woman who owns the dog yanks the raccoon off of the dog and gets bitten several times. She has to undergo rabies shots. The raccoon may have been protecting its young.
In Olympia a group of raccoons killed 10 cats and a small dog. A pet owner was also bitten and had to get rabies shots. A professional trapper was hired to remove the problem raccoons, but even with a professional the raccoons can be difficult to trap.
Meanwhile last year in Queen Anne a Maltese lost a leg and her tail as a result of a raccoon attack. A second dog and its owner were also attacked, with the owner spending 4 days in the hospital and having to undergo rabies shots.
Even our own SPEAKS editor, Relaena Sindelar, had to fend off a raccoon who attacked her Greyhound "Emma" this past month.
No Small Threat
Raccoons in our area are larger than the ones further south and can weigh up to 50 pounds. It's easy to see how they can get the upper hand with dogs, even larger ones.
Raccoons are likewise pretty clever about getting what they want. They will rip screens to gain access to food, and they learn how to use pet doors easily. If you use a pet door large enough for a raccoon to gain entry, it's probably a very good idea to lock the pet door shut at night. I read a story on the Internet about a raccoon that went through a pet door, walked through the kitchen, down a hallway, across the living room, into the parlor, and climbed up on the piano where there was a bowl of cat food.
Injury and Disease
In addition to the obvious threat of physical attack and distemper, there are two serious infections related to raccoons.
The first one is the Raccoon Roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis. This is a potentially fatal roundworm for humans and pets that is found in over 50% of raccoons, for which its effects are not so serious. Raccoons shed the eggs in feces, which are not infective until 3-4 weeks, but can survive years under the right conditions in the soil. The eggs are sticky and can stick to a dog's fur, garden tools, children's toys, etc. The worm larvae can also exist in intermediate hosts and infect a dog that eats one of these birds or mammals.
The Center for Disease Control calls raccoon roundworm an emerging infectious disease that is an increasing threat to human health. Unfortunately, by the time an infection is diagnosed the damage by migrating larvae has been done and there is no treatment.
The major damage is to the central nervous system. Symptoms include loss of coordination, an enlarged liver, respiratory problems, lethargy, and stupor leading to a coma followed by death. Larvae can also migrate to the eyes, where they cause sensitivity to light and blindness. Infection can be diagnosed via an eye exam where the larvae can be seen in the retina.
This is a devastating disease with no known treatment Clearly you should avoid raccoon feces and keep your pets away from raccoon latrines. I highly recommend doing a web search to learn more about raccoon roundworms.
The other infectious threat for your dog is what is known as Coonhound Paralysis. This is not common and is more likely to occur in dogs that have been bitten numerous times.
The official name is polyradiculo-neuritis. It occurs when the dog's immune system mounts an inflammatory response to raccoon saliva. Seven to 11 days following bites by a raccoon, the dog's nerve roots become inflamed. Rear leg weakness progresses to paralysis, with difficulty breathing, loss of the ability to bark, and an inability to even lift the head. Some dogs need to be on a respiratory apparatus during this stage.
Improvement can come in 3 weeks, but paralysis can last for 2-3 months, and recovery can take up to 6 months.
I have focused on raccoons for this article because they seem to be involved in more attacks on dogs than other urban wildlife. However don't forget about the risks associated with other back yard animals, including possums, rats, squirrels, coyotes, and bats, to name a few.
Who could forget the coyote that managed to get into an elevator in a downtown Seattle building a few years ago? There have even been two cougars tranquilized and removed from Discovery Park over the past few years. Currently my neighborhood in Kirkland has a pair of bobcats sometimes seen in the area adjoining a state park.
Keep your dog's rabies vaccine current. It can prevent your dog from having to be quarantined if it is bitten by a wild animal, especially a bat. Although rabies is not at all common in most warm-blooded animals in our area,-it does occur in about 10% of all bats.
Be watchful when taking your dog outside, especially at night or in the early hours of morning. If you re not in a fenced yard, a leash could save your dog's life by preventing it being carried off by a predator. If you do blunder into a raccoon, you need to make a lot of noise and appear large and threatening. Yell and throw rocks or use a hose. You are at risk of being bitten as well as your dog.
Above all, don't encourage potentially dangerous wild animals by feeding them, which makes them less fearful of humans. If you do have problem raccoons, contact a professional trapper to help remove them. It is not legal in our state for private parties to trap and relocate wild animals. If you have neighbors who feed raccoons, give them the information about raccoon roundworm and hope that they take it seriously.
As a biologist, I love wild animals and love watching them as they go about their normal routines. It is sad when they find food near people and become problem animals that have to be relocated at best or euthanized when that is not an option.
So let's keep our dogs and ourselves safe by not attracting wild animals into our yards and homes and creating nuisances. A wild animal is usually not a problem unless it is cornered or is protecting its young, is in your house, or has been treated like a pet.
Photos courtesy of racoonguys.com