RaccoonsFor many people, the sight of deer in their backyard on a brisk autumn morning is a wonderful start to the day.  But, as we continue to encroach into formerly “wild” areas, are we putting ourselves and our pets at risk?

Wildlife fascinates us.   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 a recent trip to the Cape, a deer was spotted on the side of the road and the kids in the car were so excited.

However, there is a darker side to this fascination.   As we build more homes in formerly rural areas, contact with wild animals increases.  Much of this new interaction has unfortunate consequences for the wildlife.  This is evident by the number of dead skunks, raccoons, and possums along the roadside.

But, we humans and our pets are also in danger in these wild interactions.  Along with deer come blood-thirsty ticks and an array 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.  Is there any way that we can peacefully co-exist alongside wildlife?

Thankfully the answer is yes!  Knowing the risks and taking steps to avoid them can help keep the whole family safe.

First, as mentioned above, skunks and raccoons are two important reservoirs of rabies in North America.  Prior to 1977, rabies was very rare along the mid-Atlantic states and New England area.  But, a human managed relocation of raccoons from Florida to West Virginia in the late 1970s has unleashed 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 feces of the raccoon and then 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.

They may be small, but many mice and rats can carry a killer virus.  First discovered in the Four Corners region of the US, Hantavirus (or Sin Nombre virus) is now found in more than 30 states.  Because of a long incubation period (one to five weeks), many people are unaware of a problem until too late.   Thirty percent of affected individuals die.  This disease is spread through rodent droppings, urine and saliva.  It is possible to become infected after cleaning a house or barn where rodents have been in residence.   Thankfully, our pets are not affected by this virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), the white tailed deer population in North America is now approaching levels not seen in more than 200 years.  Although beautiful to look at, many wild deer carry some unwanted passengers, like ticks.

Ticks are the primary vector for several serious bacterial diseases like Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia.  As we have built new subdivisions in rural areas or reforested old agricultural lands, these diseases have shown significant increases, both in humans and our dogs.

Finally, a single celled organism known as Giardia is the most common intestinal parasite of people in North America.  In fact, people comprise the main reservoir of this disease.  But, wild animals, like beavers, muskrats and small rodents also make up an important additional source of infection.  This parasite can cause severe diarrhea, anorexia, and weight loss in both people and pets.

Thanks to modern veterinary medicine and good common sense, it is possible to enjoy our wild neighbors and keep everyone safe.

First, avoiding contact with wildlife is the number one rule.  Not only will it help prevent disease transmission, but it will also stop traumatic injuries from fights or chases through the woods. 

Avoid the temptation to feed the local wildlife (with the exception of birds).   Like our dogs and cats, wild animals become accustomed to regular feeding stations.  Although well intentioned, this act will cause wild animals to linger in your yard and puts them in danger.

Similarly, don’t adopt orphaned or injured 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, remove and destroy the feces.

Vaccinations and preventive flea and tick medications are vital in keeping 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.

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