By Carol Tannenhauser
The number of raccoons found dead or dying of canine distemper in Central Park has risen to 69, up from 26 just two weeks ago.
Despite the statistics, “the outbreak is not necessarily accelerating, but it is constant,” said Dr. Sally Slavinski, a veterinarian and assistant director at the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. “We are continuing to see sick animals.”
“As of August 4, NYC Urban Park Rangers have collected 69 raccoons that displayed key symptoms of distemper…10 DOA / 59 sick — turned over to ACC (Animal Care Centers) for humane euthanasia,” a Parks Department spokesperson emailed West Side Rag.
Dr. Slavinski confirmed the diagnosis by telephone, reiterating that “this is not rabies, and there is no concern for human health. Distemper is not a disease that can be transmitted to people,” she said. “And most New York City dogs are protected.”
Not so the poor raccoons.
“There’s no approved vaccine for use in raccoons,” Dr. Slavinski explained. “What’s more, Central Park has an unusually large population of raccoons, denser than in areas of upstate New York.” (We surmised that they like the food and hunting is not allowed.) “Because distemper is an infectious disease, there’s more opportunity for transmission to occur,” Dr. Slavinski continued. “Like all outbreaks, human or animal, it will probably run its course and the survivors — those who get mildly ill or don’t get sick at all — will remain and be immunized against infection in the future. Then, as the population increases, we could see more cases in the years ahead.”
The first cases of the current outbreak were discovered on June 24. “It started in the northern part of the park, but, at this point, we’ve collected raccoons throughout the park,” Dr. Slavinski said. On July 22, Fox News reported that a raccoon corpse had been found on 106th Street and East Drive. Contrary to reports by several media outlets, distemper is not a “zombie virus,” although infected animals can act disoriented and lethargic and become aggressive, experts said. Other symptoms include nasal discharge and violent spasms. If you see a symptomatic creature, stay away, and call 311.
Dog owners should make sure their pets’ vaccinations are up to date. One local vet expressed frustration at those who refuse to have their pets vaccinated for distemper, because they object to vaccinations in general. Although they must yield to the law requiring that all dogs be vaccinated for rabies, only those going for grooming or boarding services are mandated to have distemper shots. Ironically, unvaccinated dogs could have caused the outbreak that is killing Central Park’s raccoons, according to an article in Popular Science magazine, which quoted Dr. Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior expert at York University in Toronto.
“The issue is that the raccoons are getting distemper from unvaccinated dogs,” Dr. MacDonald contended. “They are the ones posing the risk to the raccoons, not the other way around.”
“There is no way of knowing the source,” Dr. Slavinski said.
Regardless, get your pets vaccinated — for the good of all animals.