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North Hills

5 raccoons from Ross test positive for canine distemper, rabies ruled out

Tony LaRussa
| Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, 5:36 p.m.

Five raccoons that were euthanized in Ross over a two-month period have tested positive for the canine distemper virus, according to township officials.

Ross police officers euthanized 38 raccoons throughout the township in August and September after confirming reports from residents that the animals were exhibiting abnormal behavior such as failing to run off when approached or acting listlessly.

Tests conducted on 12 of the raccoons by the Allegheny County Health Department determined that the animals did not have rabies.

The dozen raccoons were tested for canine distemper at a regional diagnostic facility at the University of Georgia, which determined that five of them had the virus.

“Canine distemper is an often fatal disease caused by canine distemper virus,” said Dr. Justin Brown, a wildlife veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which helped coordinate collection of the animals for testing.

“It is a common cause of mortality in several species of wildlife such as gray foxes, raccoons, skunks and coyotes. Clinically, the virus can cause disease with symptoms that appear identical to rabies.”

Canine distemper is highly contagious and attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems.

While canine distemper does not affect humans, it can be harmful to dogs that have not been vaccinated.

The virus is present in most bodily excretions from infected animals and does not survive long outside of the host, which means transmission typically requires close contact with an infected animal or its environment, according to health officials.

A number of residents raised concerns that the odd-acting animals might have contracted rabies by ingesting rabies vaccine bait placed throughout Allegheny County in early August.

At the time, the county health department issued an alert to pet owners that it was distributing the bait — much of it in parks — as part of its annual program to fight the spread of the virus.

The bait is not fatal if eaten, but consuming too much can cause pets to have an upset stomach or diarrhea.

The county distributed more than 300,000 pieces of bait, which contain a fishy smell that attracts raccoons and is proportioned to make it difficult for smaller critters to eat.

Most of the bait would have been consumed by raccoons within a week after being put out.

The rabies virus is transmitted by an animal bite or scratch and is almost always fatal when left untreated, said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the county health department.

So far this year, 14 rabid animals have been reported in the county, which included seven raccoons, five bats, a cat and a skunk.

On Sept. 29, the health department reported that a rabid raccoon was killed by a dog along Frankstown Avenue in Pittsburgh's East Hills neighborhood near the border with Penn Hills.

Anyone bitten, scratched or exposed to saliva from a stray or any other animal should immediately cleanse the contact area with soap and water, seek emergency medical treatment and call the health department at 412-687-2243 to report the incident.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6368 or or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.

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