A ‘zombie’ virus is raging among raccoons. What to know

Click to play video: 'Toronto calls about sick raccoons spike as ‘zombie’ virus rages in parts of Canada'
Toronto calls about sick raccoons spike as ‘zombie’ virus rages in parts of Canada
WATCH: Toronto raccoon service calls increase amid suspected distemper outbreak – May 9, 2024

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified data on service calls made to Toronto Animal Services as being from 2024. It was from 2023. This has been corrected, with data from 2024, 2023 and 2022 added for additional context.

A virus that can turn a raccoon into a “zombie” has been raging for years, with outbreaks reported in many parts of Canada.

Here’s what to do if you encounter a raccoon with canine distemper virus (CDV).

CDV will make a raccoon act strangely, according to Bill Dowd, founder and CEO of wildlife control company Skedaddle Wildlife.

“They will not be afraid of humans,” he told Global News. “They almost will look like a zombie or possessed, they’ll get up on their hind legs. They’ll start baring their teeth, maybe growling.”

Story continues below advertisement

Dowd said raccoons with the virus can be out in the daytime and they may topple over, like they are a “drunk raccoon.” The virus is lethal for raccoons and may cause them to approach humans and be aggressive if cornered.

He said to not try to approach the raccoon or relocate it as that could spread the virus to other animals, but to call local authorities, such as the humane society.

Click to play video: 'Warning after Vancouver woman attacked by raccoons'
Warning after Vancouver woman attacked by raccoons

Nathalie Karvonen, the executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre animal hospital, told Global News that distemper virus has been “raging” for 15-20 years in Toronto and was initially spread by pets.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

While pets are usually vaccinated against it, there is no current vaccination campaign for raccoons since humans can’t catch the virus, she said.

“It’s actually quite sad for the raccoons,” Karvonen said.

Story continues below advertisement

Toronto Animal Services (TAS) told Global News in an email that there has been an increase in the number of service requests for sick and injured animals this spring compared to the winter, with 2,851 cadaver requests and 3,716 sick or injured requests between January and the end of April. Overall, the spring calls were higher last year than this year, but higher this year than in spring 2022.

The TAS estimated about 90 per cent of those requests were raccoon-related but that it’s data doesn’t get into more specific detail about sick or injured requests.

“These numbers do not specify canine distemper, this condition would be one of multiple reasons why a raccoon may be sick or injured,” the spokesperson said.

“Other reasons may be; hit by car, bite wounds, ingestion of toxin/contaminated food, or a fall from tree/roof.”

That’s compared to 3,372 cadaver requests and 5,630 sick or injured requests in the same time period in 2023, and 2,083 cadavers and 1,936 sick or injured requests in 2022.

“With it being warmer, there are more animals that are out, and they are continuing to congregate and come into contact with each other, which further causes the virus to keep spreading,” TAS manager Jasmine Herzog-Evans said in April 2023.

The virus may also lead to more instances of raccoons hit by cars, the city said.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'What to do when encountering raccoons in an urban setting'
What to do when encountering raccoons in an urban setting

Symptoms of CDV could be similar to rabies, which have been a concern in Quebec recently.

In response to a number of rabies cases in the state of Vermont, including one 10 kilometres from the Quebec border, Quebec carried out a vaccination campaign in late April.

The province distributed 46,200 vaccine baits, including by air dropping them. The vaccine bait resembles a greenish ketchup pack and gives off a sweet smell to attract raccoons.

While there was a spike in rabies cases in 2016 in Ontario, the province says the disease has since been brought under control and cases among raccoons are down 90 per cent. The province vaccinates raccoons against rabies every year.

If you do get scratched by a raccoon, Dowd said to get medical attention immediately, as you may need a rabies shot.

Story continues below advertisement

While it’s rare for raccoons to attack humans, there have been cases of people taking one in and trying to train it, which experts strongly urge against. That is because the raccoon will expect food from humans and not be afraid of them, and they are capable of opening doors with their claws.

— with files from Global News’ Brittany Rosen.

Sponsored content