Bacterial diseases. It is always wonderful to wake up and find deer grazing in the backyard or other wildlife roaming freely in your backyard. However as construction continues to encroach into formerly “wild” areas, are we putting ourselves and our pets at risk? Wildlife is usually pleasurable to watch. Whether it’s the sight of a fox along the roadside or a raccoon ambling across a yard, people often stop in amazement, enthralled by these encounters with nature. On the other hand, as we build in areas that were once reserved for wildlife, and the naturally wooded areas become scarce we find wild animals coming closer and closer to our front doors.
Fascination aside… what about the risks? Along with deer come blood-thirsty ticks and a variety of bacterial diseases. Raccoons and skunks bring the terror of rabies to our backyard and even the humble mouse has the potential for spreading deadly Hantavirus. Yet there must be a way for us all to co-exist harmoniously alongside wildlife. Once we are aware of potential risks then we can take steps to avoid problems and keep the whole family, both two and four footed, safe.
Skunks and raccoons are two noteworthy reservoirs of rabies in North America. Prior to 1977, rabies was very rare along the mid-Atlantic states and New England area. However human efforts to relocate raccoons from Florida to West Virginia in the late 1970s resulted in a new epidemic of rabies in these areas. Rabid raccoons often become nice and “approachable” and many people are tempted to take the animal into their yards or homes. Skunks, on the other hand, will become overly aggressive and actively attack humans and pets.
Raccoons also harbor a significant parasite known as the “raccoon roundworm” or Baylisascaris. These large worms are associated with severe or even fatal central nervous system disease in many mammals. The eggs are passed in the stool of the raccoon and are later encountered by other animals, including children. The parasite can also mature in our dogs. This means that it is possible our pets are helping to contaminate larger areas with this potentially fatal worm. Many mice and rats carry a deadly virus called the Hantavirus. The Hantavirus, a relative of the Ebola virus, was originally discovered in the Four Corners region of the US, and now it is in over 30 states. The incubation period which is the time from initial contact with the virus until signs of disease are apparent varies and can be anywhere from one to five weeks. Since this virus, pictured below, has such a long incubation time sickened individuals generally remain unaware they are ill, until it is too late.
Over 50% of affected people, often children, infected with Hantavirus die. This disease is spread through rodent droppings, urine and saliva and signs can mimic rabies. It is also possible to become infected after cleaning a house or barn where rodents have been living. The good news is that this virus does not affect dogs or cats. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the white tailed deer population in North America is larger than it’s been in over 200 years. Although beautiful to look at, many wild deer carry ticks, which carry bacteria that can result in Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia to name a few. All of which are transmissible to pets and people.
Finally, a single celled organism known as Giardia is the most common intestinal parasite of people in North America. In fact, people are the main reservoir of this disease. Giardia can cause severe diarrhea, appetite loss, and weight loss in both people and pets. Giardia is easily treated. Because of modern veterinary medicine and good common sense, we can enjoy wild life neighbors and keep everyone safe at the same time. First, avoiding contact with wildlife is the number one rule. Not only will it help prevent disease transmission, but it will also stop trauma and injuries resulting from fights or chases in the woods.
Try to avoid feeding local wildlife, other than birds. Just like dogs and cats, wild animals become accustomed to regular feeding times and locations. Although the intention is good, the outcome can be hazardous for you, your family, children and pets as feeding wildlife helps to keep the wild animals coming back to your yard for more. It is also wise not to adopt orphaned or injured wild animals unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Keeping these animals increases your risk of contracting one of the diseases or parasites mentioned above. Watch for wildlife defecation areas, like communal raccoon latrines. Using proper protective equipment, including gloves and a mask, remove and destroy the feces.
Vaccinations and preventive flea and tick medications are very helpful to keep our pets safe from these dangers. Your veterinarian can help you determine your pets’ risk factors and then guide you to choosing appropriate vaccines and flea/tick preventives. Our growing urban sprawl and the adaptability of wild creatures means that we will continue to encounter many animals in and around our homes.