Arlington Sees Rabies and Canine Distemper Cases Spike

By Amie Knowles

March 12, 2021

The city’s raccoon population causes problems.

ARLINGTON – If you’re in the Arlington area – or really anywhere wildlife live – posing for a photo with a raccoon isn’t a good idea.

Not only are the fluffy black and white mammals wild, they also have dangerous potential. Their sharp claws have puncturing potential. Their sharp teeth and strong mouths sometimes break or fracture bones of smaller animals.

Besides the obvious reasons not to get into a scuffle with a raccoon, there’s another issue currently taking hold of the raccoon population in Arlington.

Late last fall, Arlington County Animal Control received multiple troubling calls. Area residents expressed concerns over both sick and deceased raccoons.

Between Nov. 2020 and Feb. 2021, two raccoons received rabies tests, due to potential contact with a domestic animal. One of those raccoons tested positive for rabies.

However, the disease distribution didn’t stop there. The area experienced ongoing issues with the raccoon population.

Arlington County Animal Control and the Arlington County Department of Human Services arranged for broader testing of six raccoons. Those animals exhibited concerning neurological signs and symptoms in early March 2021. All six raccoons tested positive for canine distemper.

Rabid Raccoons

Chances are, when most people think of rabies, Hollywood images come to mind. Frothing at the mouth, being out in the daytime, extreme aggression – those sorts of things. However, that’s not necessarily the case in a real life animal encounter scenario.

Chelsea Jones, the senior communications specialist for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, made observation recommendations for rabies signs and symptoms.

“Typically what you’re looking for, to be concerned about a wild animal, is if it’s acting lethargic,” Jones said. “Do they look drunk? It sounds kind of silly to say that, but those are usually the signs that an animal might be very sick.”

If an individual observes those behaviors, Jones asked that they alert Animal Control.

Rabies Vaccines

Rabies infections are fatal to animals and dangerous – and potentially fatal, if untreated – to humans. If a human comes in contact with a potentially rabid wild animal, the person gets a series of shots.

The four shots occur on days one, three, seven and 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The person must also receive another shot called the rabies immune globulin.

Those in animal welfare careers who had a pre-exposure to rabies vaccine require an additional two doses if they come into contact with a rabid animal. They do not need the rabies immune globulin.

Since Jones works with animals, she received the pre-exposure vaccine. She did not have any adverse reactions.

However, for those receiving the post-exposure rabies vaccine, it’s no walk in the park.

“I have heard that they can be uncomfortable. And they are quite expensive as well,” Jones said. “So definitely, it’s something you don’t want to mess with if you don’t have to.”

While humans can get rabies infections, they don’t happen often.

“It is quite rare,” Jones said. “We have not had a human rabies infection in a very, very, very long time. A really long time.”

The last known Virginia case occurred more than a decade ago. In 2009, a Virginia resident encountered a rabid dog while traveling in India.

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Does Arlington Have a Distemper Problem?

“Canine” in this case is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, dogs can unfortunately contract canine distemper. But so can other mammals like skunks, foxes, coyotes and unvaccinated dogs.

Raccoons are also susceptible to feline distemper, called Feline Panleukopenia. The canine and feline versions of distemper vary greatly. They are different viruses and animals exude different symptoms.

The disease transmits when animals have direct contact with infected animals. The disease also manifests through indirect contact with body fluids or feces from an infected animal.

Symptoms of canine distemper include fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting.

For both dogs and cats, veterinarians offer distemper vaccines. Virginia law does not require distemper shots, unlike the rabies vaccine, but they are available.

While most domestic animals will not have an adverse reaction to the distemper vaccination, complications can happen. Jones encouraged talking with a trusted veterinarian about the vaccination.

“Any time is a good time [to vaccinate], but especially right now because we have these six confirmed cases of canine distemper in raccoons. It means that that disease is out there. You would be surprised how often we do have dogs and raccoons interacting in different ways – sometimes just sniffing it out, sometimes we can see fights between dogs and raccoons [but] not very often,” Jones said. “We usually don’t want your dog to pick that up, especially from a wild animal. It could potentially pass it on to another dog. Even if your dog doesn’t get very sick, they could give it to another dog that gets very, very ill from it. If you weren’t going to do it before, now is a good reminder that it’s really important to have it done. Any veterinarian or clinic should be able to do it.”

Arlington Takes Precautions

It’s no secret that humans share the world with animals. However, sometimes they’re better at leaving us alone than we are at letting them get on with their daily lives.

If a person encounters an animal, the safest practice is to not approach or disturb it.

“Even if you live in an urban environment [like] D.C., there’s still wildlife. We’re near wildlife all the time. And we have to learn how to coexist with it,” Jones said. “When it comes to mammals, mammals are the kind of animals that can get rabies. You always want to follow the rule of ‘leave it alone.’ We don’t need to be bothering wild animals. We should be observing them and enjoying them from a distance.”

Arlington officials asked residents to remain vigilant in keeping their pets up-to-date on rabies and distemper vaccines. They also asked that pet owners keep their dogs on a leash at all times and keep their cats inside, as well as feed pets indoors.

Additionally, officials cautioned against approaching or feeding wild animals. They suggested removing wildlife attractants from yards, such as unsecured garbage cans, open containers of food and compost.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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