Bay Area dogs at risk amid potential canine distemper outbreak

A gray fox wobbled along the edge of the Crissy Field Marsh in San Francisco on a recent Sunday afternoon, undeterred by people walking and biking. The fox stopped on the sandy path, looked down the beach, and even allowed curious passersby to pet him.

But what may seem like an unusual display of docility on the part of the fox is probably something more sinister. Bay Area wildlife experts say the fox was likely one of countless animals in the region to suffer an outbreak of what is believed to be canine distemper, a sometimes fatal viral disease that is highly contagious among some. mammals. It appears to be spreading at a high rate, threatening to infect domestic dogs.

The current outbreak isn’t a public health concern — the virus doesn’t affect humans — but people need to be aware it’s happening, said Jonathan Young, a wildlife ecologist with the Presidio Trust. Like COVID-19, he said, the effects of canine distemper can be prevented or greatly reduced with a vaccine, and experts urge dog owners to make sure their pets are up-to-date on their vaccinations .

Still, Young and other local experts are concerned about the unusually high number of wildlife, primarily skunks and raccoons, that appear to be falling ill with untreatable neurological symptoms. The cause of the apparent outbreak is unknown, but the spread of the virus may have been spurred by the ubiquity of raccoons in the region, especially in cities like San Francisco, Young said.

“It’s just an alarming situation when you see a lot of wild animals acting differently with potential illness,” said Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for San Francisco Animal Care & Control, which has been fielding several calls a day about sick animals across the city. . “This is a disease that should not be taken lightly.”

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Animals suspected of having canine distemper have been seen in Crissy Field Marsh.

Animals suspected of having canine distemper have been seen in Crissy Field Marsh.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Wildlife officials have yet to test the bodies of wild animals found in the Bay Area this year for the distemper virus, but local experts say symptoms seen in sick raccoons, skunks and foxes match those commonly caused by the virus. Typical symptoms include eye and nasal discharge, tremors, diarrhea, lack of appetite, disorientation, and walking in circles. More broadly, the virus can cause respiratory, neurological and gastrointestinal illnesses, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In San Francisco, reports of wild animals behaving strangely began to rise earlier this year, raising “red flags that something is going on here,” Young said. “The evidence is piling up.”

While canine distemper outbreaks can be somewhat cyclical, occurring every few years and then naturally disappearing, the current outbreak in the Bay Area is alarming, Campbell said. Because the disease is contagious, debilitating, and not curable, hospitals and wildlife refuges have to euthanize infected animals, taking care to avoid spreading the virus to other animals in their care.

In the first two months of 2022, San Francisco Animal Care and Control received dozens of calls about sick animals and sent officers to capture them. By the end of February, the shelter had euthanized 29 skunks and 20 raccoons believed to have canine distemper. During the same time period in each of the last three years, fewer than three skunks and fewer than four raccoons were euthanized for distemper, according to data from Animal Care & Control.

“Given the fact that we didn’t see it (canine distemper) or certainly didn’t recognize it for years … it’s clearly on the rise, it’s an outbreak,” said Juliana Sorem, a staff veterinarian at WildCare wildlife hospital in San Rafael. “There’s probably some background level all the time, but we weren’t seeing levels like this all the time.”

There is some speculation that the current outbreak could be caused by a newer variant of the canine distemper virus; Sorem said he has been noticing less common symptoms lately, such as skin infections and foul odors among sick animals. He said his team has been seeing signs of an outbreak in Marin County since early last year. Wildlife officials in the East Bay also reported an unusually high number of cases, Young said.

But the apparent rise in canine distemper cases is unlikely to become an epidemic among wildlife, Sorem said, mainly because wild animals don’t tend to congregate in large groups. The disease is spread through inhalation of respiratory droplets or contact with saliva and other body fluids, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.