Myth busted: Zombie raccoons

Picture of a raccoon kit
A young raccoon kit (Procyon lotor) runs along an urban fence.
Photo by seb29 / Getty Images

Canine distemper virus isn’t new to Ontario – it’s been present for at least 60 years. But there’s a new spin leading to questions about “zombie raccoons.”

Recent media reports have used the phrase in describing the behaviour of raccoons in Toronto. Fortunately, experts are quick to dismiss the analogy.

“I have seen a lot of horror movies and these raccoons have no resemblance to zombies to me,” says Nathalie Karvonen, Executive Director and Founder at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. “The virus that raccoons are getting is canine distemper virus. It certainly does affect their brain and their behaviours. What we’re seeing with this version of canine distemper virus in raccoons is they seem really unconcerned about people and what’s going on around them. They may sit in a driveway in pouring rain or might decide to take a nap on a sidewalk on a sunny afternoon. They don’t exhibit normal behaviours at all for raccoons.”

It can spread to numerous species, including coyotes, foxes, wolves, mink, skunks, ferrets, and raccoons. It can also spread back to domestic dogs, but many domestic dogs are now vaccinated against the virus.

How Distemper Spreads

Canine Distemper virus is highly contagious and spreads through:

  • contaminated air droplets from sneezing and coughing,
  • contaminated food, water and surfaces, and
  • in saliva, feces, and urine.

Helping Raccoons with Distemper

Distemper is almost always fatal and very contagious, says Karvonen, and though Toronto Wildlife Centre is in the business of saving lives, humane euthanasia is the only option for a raccoon with the virus. If raccoons are left where they are when inflicted by the virus, they will suffer a prolonged death and have an increased chance to infect other animals in the ecosystem. Currently, Toronto Wildlife Centre is seeing an increase in skunks with cases of canine distemper virus as well.  

If people see a raccoon or other animal they think may be suffering from distemper, calling a wildlife rehabilitator is the best first step, Karvonen says.

“We will ask if there is any evidence of head trauma, blood or swelling around the head or eyes that could be the result of a traffic collision,” she says. “If that’s the case, we will always bring the animal in to do a full workup on them, to make sure there isn’t something else going on.”

Raccoons brought into Toronto Wildlife Centre, particularly babies, are given vaccinations against distemper before they’re released. It’s expensive, Karvonen notes, but it’s a good way to protect raccoons who are being released back into the wild.

The Government of Ontario information page on canine distemper virus also indicates that human activity – trapping and moving animals, for example – can spread the illness. Rabies was eliminated in Ontario, but a single raccoon carrying the virus that was inadvertently transported from New York re-introduced it in 2015 and led to a serious outbreak.

Though little can be done for raccoons who have contracted Canine Distemper Virus, supporting your local wildlife rehabilitator as a volunteer or donor can make a significant long-term impact.

Picture of a dog and companion visiting a veterinarian
Photo by SeventyFour / Getty Images

Protecting Dogs

Keeping dogs safe from canine distemper virus is straight forward.

1 Keep your pet’s vaccinations up to date (learn more about canine distemper virus vaccinations for dogs here).

2 Keep dogs leashed and prevent them from interacting with wildlife. Dogs must come into close contact with an infected animal to be exposed, and preventing any potential chasing or attempts to play will keep everyone safe.

3 Keep a respectful distance from wildlife, and never feed them, as this can encourage them to approach people, pets, or put themselves at greater risk of other issues. It can also lead them to congregate, which can increase the spread of illnesses.

Learn More

There are many professional resources available regarding canine distemper virus for veterinarians and the public. This is a brief list of reputable resources:

Government of Ontario – Canine distemper

Merck Veterinary Manual – Canine Distemper

American Veterinary Medical Association – Canine distemper

Worms & Germs Blog – Raccoons, Distemper, and Dogs

Help Make A Difference

Join The Fur-Bearers today and help us protect fur-bearing animals in the wild and confinement. To become a monthly donor (for as little as $10/month – the cost of two lattes) please click here and help us save lives today. Your donation is tax-deductible.

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