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Dogs and cats at risk as epidemic kills raccoons

If you see a raccoon lying on a sidewalk in the middle of the day, call Toronto Animal Services — and keep your dog on a tight leash.

The animal is likely sick and dying, and could infect your pet with a lethal strain of distemper, an epidemic that has killed hundreds of raccoons and skunks in the GTA since May.

“It’s not transferable to humans but there is definitely a high risk to unvaccinated cats and dogs,” said Eletta Purdy, manager of Toronto Animal Services. “It’s not rabies but it kills quickly.”

Distemper is a potentially fatal viral disease similar to measles that affects animals, especially dogs. Puppies and older dogs are more susceptible to the disease, which is spread by food, water, body fluids and feces. Cats are not as susceptible.

Distemper hits dogs in two phases: initially, they experience vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration, excessive salivation, coughing and/or laboured breathing, loss of appetite, weight loss and even pneumonia.

If the animal survives, the virus winds up in the brain. “That’s when you see the neurological signs,” said Doug Campbell, a pathologist at the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre in Guelph.

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