(News-Press.com) - Recent evidence indicates that Lee County's raccoon population is undergoing an outbreak of distemper.
Five people have been bitten by raccoons in the past three weeks, one in San Carlos, two in Fort Myers and two in Cape Coral.
The San Carlos raccoon was captured and tested positive for rabies; the other raccoons were not captured but showed signs of distemper - humans cannot contract distemper, but they can contract rabies.
Raccoons are susceptible to canine and feline distemper, which are highly contagious diseases caused by two different viral agents - members of the cat family cannot contract canine distemper, and members of the dog family cannot contract feline distemper.
"Outbreaks are common for canine distemper in raccoons," said Mark Cunningham, a wildlife veterinarian for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's probably the most common infectious cause of mortality in raccoons. Feline distemper in raccoons is common as well."
Distemper outbreaks in raccoons run in cycles, Cunningham said.
"We hear of outbreaks almost every year in different areas of Florida," he said. "Perhaps it's been a while since an outbreak has happened in a population of raccoons, and the population is naive - it's not resistant to the virus - so an outbreak can occur and affect a large number of animals."
Although no one has been bitten by a raccoon on Pine Island, environmental watchdog Phil Buchanan has seen several raccoons with distemper symptoms.
"I've had five calls in the past week; we're getting raccoons that are dead for no apparent reason," Buchanan said. "I had one yesterday that was dying. It had a runny nose, runny eyes; it was going into a coma.
"I can't be sure that it's an epidemic, but, jeez, it sure looks like one."
In addition to cases of sick raccoons, Buchanan has seen numerous dead raccoons with no obvious trauma.
Symptoms of canine distemper include coughing, diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia and discharges from the nose and eyes.
Feline distemper symptoms include high fever, depression, diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia.
Wild animals with distemper can become aggressive or lose their fear of humans.
In a prepared statement, Judith Hartner, director of the Florida Department of Health Lee County, said that people should not feed wild or stray animals or take trash outside until pickup day.
People should also avoid walking at night because raccoons are nocturnal.
Pets can contract distemper from infected raccoons, so Donna Ward, director of Lee County Animal Services, said dogs, cats and ferrets vaccinated should get annual distemper vaccinations.