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March 13, 2012

Raccoons and Public Health

What you need to know about raccoons and rabies, roundworms, leptospirosis, attacks, and bites

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Sleep is a raccoon's main event after a busy night foraging for food, but you may see them at any hour of the day. Ivkuzmin/iStockphoto.com

  • If you find a raccoon that looks sick, keep away from him and call your local animal control or police department immediately. John Hadidian/The HSUS

Raccoons—along with foxes (red and gray), skunks, and bats—are considered a primary carrier of the rabies virus in the United States. While any warm-blooded animal can carry rabies, these are the ones we call “rabies vector species.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one human has ever died from the raccoon strain of rabies.

A rabid raccoon is usually dead within 1-3 days of becoming infectious, and even if you're bitten by a rabid raccoon, effective post-exposure treatment is available.

Is that raccoon rabid?

If you see a raccoon in your yard during the day, don’t panic—she is not necessarily sick or dangerous. It’s perfectly normal for raccoons to be active throughout the day. She may merely be foraging longer hours to support her young, visiting a garden while the dogs are indoors, or moving to a new location.

Seeing a raccoon during the day is no cause for panic.

Key in on the behavior of the raccoon before calling for assistance. Look for:

    • Staggering gait
    • An animal seemingly oblivious to noise or nearby movement
    • Erratic wandering
    • Discharge from eyes or mouth
    • Wet and matted hair on face
    • Repeated high-pitch vocalization
    • Self-mutilation

If you see a raccoon showing these signs, call your local animal control or police department.

Raccoon roundworm

Another growing concern is a roundworm (Baylisascaris) found in raccoon feces that can infect humans and pets. Prevention is the key here. Keep raccoons out of attics and crawl spaces, and supervise young children and pets outdoors to make sure they don’t come into contact with raccoon feces. And if you find evidence of a raccoon latrine, make sure you clean it up properly.

Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria that can infect raccoons, skunks, opossums, Norway rats, mice, and white-tailed deer. Humans may be exposed if they come into contact with infected urine or contaminated soil and water. Avoid touching wild animals. If contact is necessary to get a raccoon out of your house, call in a professional.

Attacks and bites

It isn’t uncommon for a healthy raccoon to be active in the daytime, but it's highly unusual for a raccoon to be aggressive toward a person. A females may boldly defend her young, arching her back and growling or giving a loud “whoof,” and perhaps lunging at a person she deems threatening. Only very rarely will a raccoon chase after someone seen as threatening.

A raccoon who appears ill or disoriented, or who engages in unprovoked aggression, may be rabid or infected with canine distemper or feline parvovirus. If you come into contact with a wild animal, obtain professional assistance from your local animal control agency, and health department.

Resources

» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors, the go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife. 
» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife conflict resolution service.
» Read Dorcas MacClintock’s Natural History of Raccoons (Blackburn Press, 2003) to learn more. 

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