Pet Points: Be wary of raccoons and the diseases they spread

There’s a masked bandit in town who steals food, raids trash cans and carries diseases that affect pets and people. Raccoons are common in both city and rural environments and they spread potentially fatal diseases as well as create a public nuisance.

They are smart and adaptive creatures. Avoid any contact with them by eliminating places for them to find shelter or food. That means never leaving pet food outside. Rabies is a serious problem, and raccoons bring the potential for infection from wooded areas to the backyard of every homeowner.

Vaccinating dogs and cats for rabies is the responsibility of every owner, and veterinarians vaccinate and revaccinate according to strict guidelines to protect the public. Just this week I heard from a client whose neighbor stepped out the front door to find a live raccoon 3 feet from her. Luckily she was not attacked. The raccoon tested positive for rabies.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the Allegheny County Health Department have a program to bait wooded areas with oral rabies vaccine to inoculate raccoons. These packets should not be handled, but they will not cause a problem if found by dogs. Raccoons often live in sheds, under porches and on roofs. Pittsburgh Animal Care and Control will only send officers to pick up sick raccoons and those acting abnormally with neurological signs.

Raccoons also carry Baylisascaris procyonis, a type of roundworm that causes a potentially fatal disease for many animals, including humans. Unsuspecting people contact raccoon stool that is frequently deposited in areas used by multiple animals to relieve themselves. Dogs and cats can be infected and transmit disease to humans.

The roundworm can kill when its larvae migrate into the brain. Great care must be taken to avoid contact with raccoon stool, which can enter the home on firewood. Strict sanitation when working outside and on camping trips is necessary. Hand washing to prevent oral ingestion is critical, especially for young children.

Another disease spread by raccoons is leptospirosis. This is a serious bacterial disease found worldwide, and humans are usually exposed during recreational activities involving water. Dogs can become infected after exposure to creeks, farms, parks and wildlife. At a recent lecture on leptospirosis, I learned that the disease is more common in small-breed dogs, which are often not vaccinated because their owners fear a reaction to vaccines. Dogs can be exposed to the urine of raccoons and other wildlife in the yard or on a deck. Our office recently confirmed a diagnosis of leptospirosis in a miniature poodle. The dog was lucky to recover.

With improved diagnostic tests and more awareness, veterinarians are becoming better at diagnosing this disease, which can cause kidney and liver failure in dogs. Immediate treatment with antibiotics and supportive care is necessary. To avoid reactions in small dogs, we recommend a separate vaccination for leptospirosis. Although it may mean an extra visit to the veterinarian, it’s well worth it.  Vaccines for leptospirosis have been improved, and reactions are far less common than in the past.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.