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Canine distemper spreading 'like wildfire' in Red Wing

Foxes that don't appear frightened by humans may be suffering from canine distemper. Experts recommend avoiding such animals. -- R-E photo by Jen Cullen

A local veterinarian urged Red Wing residents to steer clear of sickly looking raccoons and foxes, saying the animals likely suffer from an outbreak of canine distemper.

"It is so contagious and so infectious from one to another," said Bluffs Pet Clinic veterinarian Dr. Darlene Cook.

Over the past two months, Red Wing police have responded to more than two-dozen calls concerning the wayward animals. Police Chief Tim Sletten said residents commonly report seeing the animals - primarily raccoons - coming unusually close to humans and wandering around during daylight hours.

Those are trademark signs that the animals have contracted canine distemper, Cook said. The animals may walk in circles, appearing to be drunk.

"They appear to be not afraid of anybody," Cook said, noting that the unusual behavior is a result of the disease attacking an animal's nervous system.

She said the disease spreads by direct animal contact through secretions including saliva and blood, but can be transferred to canines through the air. Once it enters a host community, the disease "spreads like wildfire," Cook said.

And while the disease cannot spread to humans, she said dogs may be at high risk for contracting the disease. Cook urged pet owners to keep a close eye on their dogs and to be sure their distemper vaccines are up to date.

Humans also should not approach the animals, she said. Distemper-stricken animals can be unpredictable.

"They could become aggressive," Cook said.

If a dead raccoon or fox is discovered, Cook recommended burying them or transporting the remains to the city's incinerator on Bench Street.

"Don't just leave them laying around," she said.

Jeff Schneider, the city's deputy public works director of solid waste, said incinerator staff will accept the remains free of charge. He and others stressed using caution in handling the carcasses, though.

Sletten said gloves should be used, while Schneider recommended wrapping the remains in more than one plastic bag.

If the remains are buried, Cook recommended digging at least two feet deep so other animals don't attempt to unearth the disease-carrying carcasses.

She said that once contracted, distemper usually progresses over two weeks before stricken animals die.

Cook did not know how long the outbreak might last. She said it could continue to spread until at least the next freeze.