It's always best to be cautious and keep children and pets away from wild animals, especially those that don't run away when approached.
Living in the country means sooner or later a sick wild animal will turn up in your yard. Perhaps it will be a listless raccoon that wobbles on unsteady thin legs and, when confronted, offers little in the way of either offensive or defensive tactics. Maybe it will be a thin, mangy fox that doesn't run away from you. Or it might be a skunk aggressively attacking your pet. Skunks are crepuscular, which means they hunt at twilight. Raccoons are nocturnal, doing most of their hunting at night. Seeing these animals in the daytime is an indication that something might not be right with them.
Canine distemper is one common cause of illness in wild animals. Distemper is caused by a virus that is always present in the environment. Besides dogs, it infects skunks, foxes, and coyotes. As the population density of many of these wild animals increases, canine distemper spreads and becomes nature's way of limiting the population.
Symptoms of distemper include a mucous discharge from the nose and eyes, thin emaciated appearance, rough patchy coat, confusion and disorientation (a nocturnal animal wandering around in the daylight), diarrhea, seizures, and muscle spasms. Distemper is spread by bodily discharges from sick animals. The disease is difficult to treat and is often fatal, but it is not communicable to humans. Nature will take its course with wildlife suffering from distemper. If a sick animal dies in your yard, bury it deep enough so your dog or the neighbor's dog won't dig it up.
Rabies is fatal and communicable to humans. The symptoms are similar to distemper. The only sure way to identify which disease is affecting a sick animal is laboratory analysis of the brain. If a wild animal is aggressive, has excessive drooling or frothing at the mouth, and expresses no fear, it could be rabid. If it comes in contact with a human or pet, the wild animal should be killed and taken to a veterinary clinic for testing. Ann Brunswig, a central Minnesota veterinarian who specializes in pet care, advises immediate action if rabies is suspected in a wild animal, particularly if that animal has bitten or scratched someone. "The brain needs to be tested, so be sure not to damage it," she says. "The test results are back in three days. We also need to know the person's doctor in case treatment is necessary." Pets and livestock that were in contact with the sick animal need to be quarantined for at least 10 days to watch for infection.
Tips to avoid the problem
It is important to immunize pets against distemper and rabies. Reducing food sources is one way to discourage raccoons and other wild animals from visiting your property. Feed pets inside. Keep garbage cans in the garage or a shed, and secure the lids so the dexterous hands of the raccoons can't open them. Raccoons also like compost bins, so cover compost securely. Don't attempt to live-trap raccoons and relocate them. Animals exposed to a disease will transmit it to animals in the new area.
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