Central Park Raccoon Distemper Deaths Climb; Did They Get it from Unvaccinated Dogs?


An increasing number of Central Park raccoons are contracting canine distemper. (There is no reason to believe this particular raccoon had it.)

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.

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 13 comments | permalink
    1. Alex says:

      While it’s ridiculous not to get a dog vaccinated for common and contagious diseases, it’s irresponsible for Dr. MacDonald to suggest that the vector is dogs to raccoons. She has not apparently studied the case. She is in Toronto, and studies behavior, not disease transmission. And while understandable that the West Side Rag would repeat information published elsewhere, the newspaper should be less credulous.

    2. Jsc says:

      Earlier reports said to call 311 and ask for nyc rangers to report sick or dying raccoons – unfortunately, no one told the operators working there and I was shunted around for half an hour before giving up.

    3. dannyboy says:

      I see that the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene has joined the Park’s Department in their casual and relaxed response:

      “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.””

      compare this to FACT provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association reports:
      “dogs and domestic puppies can become infected with canine distemper through airborne exposure (such as sneezing or coughing) from a dog or wild animal that is infected. Additionally, it can spread through shared food or water bowls and equipment.”

      • NotImpressed says:

        Can you explain where you are confused?

      • Nat says:

        Most NYC dogs are protected because most NYC dogs are vaccinated.

        • dannyboy says:

          Yes, that is clearly communicated:
          this is not rabies
          there is no concern for human health
          And most New York City dogs are protected

          What is not communicated is any of the dangerous risks of this situation.

          • NotImpressed says:

            Again, danny, your reading comprehension problems encourage your outrage.
            Most dogs are vaccinated against distemper as well as rabies.
            That’s what was meant by “And most New York City dogs are protected.”.
            Try to calm down.

    4. This is so sad. It is always a treat to see (from a distance) these cuties going about their business on the UWS.

      Thanks for letting us know.

    5. Scott says:

      I welcome this development. Raccoons are not nice, not cuddly, and they love attacking small dogs. Here’s what a vet reports on Dogster:

      “The raccoon attempts to scratch out the dog’s eyes. The raccoon rolls the dog onto its back and attempts to eviscerate it. Raccoons bite and scratch with amazing speed and ferocity. Their bites often penetrate the chest wall, leading to collapsed lungs. They may penetrate the abdomen, leading to septic peritonitis. They also have a knack for lacerating the urethra, causing urine to accumulate underneath the skin, resulting in terrible scalding and possible secondary kidney failure.”

      Lovely creatures.

      • The least nicest on the planet tend to be humans. Not cute, not cuddly and don’t mind attacking anything in its way to anything (see for ex, parking space fights…).

        Lovely creatures.

        We should still show them some tenderness though, don’t you think? xo

        • Ms. Ann Thrope says:

          Sad, but true!

          It has often been pointed out that the ONLY creature which kills:
          NOT for food,
          NOT to protect its offspring,
          NOT to defend its territory, is ……..

          the featherless, furless, biped called a HUMAN.

    6. Realist says:

      The claim about humans being the only animal that kills for reasons other than food or defense is incorrect. Take cats, for example, in which the hunting instinct is independent of the hunger instinct. Even the most well-fed house cat will, given the opportunity, stalk, capture and then, with much apparent sadism, slowly torture to death its helpless prey. Cats are sadistic, ruthless creatures. That is the inescapable reality, hideous as it may be.