Wildlife Diseases – Part One.

by Jennifer Howard


Let’s start with one we all know about. Mange. Our followers know that this has been a real problem the last couple of years in foxes. In 2021 we had over 30 foxes admitted and treated for mange. This year again it has been bad. As most of you know, mange is treatable. But it’s also mistaken by some to be rabies.

Mange is a tiny microorganism that burrows under the animal’s skin. It causes them great discomfort. It will not go away but only continues to get worse. It generally starts at the hind end, the tail losing fur until it’s bald. They bite and scratch at the area, and the mites can then transfer to the face. It continues consuming all the animal’s body, leaving it bald in some severe cases. Crusting their eyes shut so they can not hunt to survive. It becomes critical if they are not live trapped and brought in for care. They will slowly starve to death, become dehydrated, hypothermic and eventually their organs start to shut down and that is it for them. The fight for life ends. Please if you see a sick animal with mange, take photos if possible and call Procyon, leave a message, photos are very helpful for us in determining the condition of the animal.



Remember they can be helped.

People ask why can’t we treat them in the field. Our vet does not allow it. You need to be careful as ivermectin is harmful to other animals and certain breeds of dogs. They can overdose if you don’t have their weight.  Lethal to certain breeds of dogs. If the animal is bad it also needs to be put on pain meds and antibiotics for infection to help it heal. That can not be done in the wild. And we usually give them 2 to 3 doses. We always weigh them first upon admittance so they get a proper safe dose. We monitor them and put them on a slow feeding protocol. Bring them back slowly and safely. Emaciated animals can actually die if fed too much. It’s called refeeding syndrome. Their organs just shut down. Nothing we can do at that point. Upon release, we treat them again with another medication, which protects them for another 3 months. Yes, foxes can contract mange again. However, so far we have not gotten any of the same foxes back. And people are still reporting seeing our healthy releases. So always make that call. Help is in your hands.


Distemper can also mimic rabies, in fact, both affect the animal’s brain. Signs of distemper are as follows:

  1. discharge around the eyes and nose.
  2. eyes crusty.
  3. laying on its head.
  4. going in circles.
  5. very friendly.
  6. has been quilled by a porcupine.
  7. seems confused.
  8. having seizures or chewing fits.
  9. wanders aimlessly.
  10. stumbles when walking.
  11. has trouble climbing trees.

They can also have vomiting and diarrhea, distemper is very painful.

If you are in a municipality where animal control is offered, call them. They should be able to help and if they are in doubt they should call us or another rehabilitation centre.

There is no cure. If we are not 100% certain we put them into isolation. And closely monitor them. Otherwise a positive diagnosis we can’t let the animal suffer. And they do suffer, it’s horrible.


Distemper is a virus ( paramyxovirus) affecting the animal’s spinal cord, brain, intestinal tract, and gastrointestinal tract. It is the second leading cause of death in our raccoon population. And it spreads. It’s highly contagious.

Skunks and foxes can get distemper as well. But we mostly see it in raccoons. Other animals must come in direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected animals, or direct contact with the sick animal or being near it if it’s coughing as then the virus goes airborne with infected respiratory droplets. From drinking or eating from infected dishes.

This is why we stress that you don’t feed wildlife as you can also attract the sick. You have no control over who or what you attract. The incubation period is 6 to 22 days. You can kill the virus in the area if you had a sick animal on your property by cleaning the area with bleach.

It is extremely important to keep your pets’ vaccinations up to date. Do not feed them outside as that can attract wildlife, and keep your pet’s water bowls well washed if outside.

Bring in at night. The virus doesn’t live long once exposed to the air and if it is dried up.


Rabies is often misunderstood for mange and distemper. People look at the animal’s condition and behavior and automatically think of rabies. There have been a couple of new cases of rabies in the Niagara region this year. As a wildlife centre, we follow the latest statistics on rabies very closely. We receive regular updates from the MNR and we post them monthly on our website:  https://www.procyonwildlife.com/rabies-stats/

Symptoms of rabies are as follows:

  1. Aggressive behavior becomes evident, however they may also become very affectionate.
  2. Excessive drooling.
  3. Can have trouble swallowing.
  4. Become unsteady on their feet, wobbly.
  5. Take seizures.
  6. Can become weak and disoriented.

Late in the disease, it reaches the brain and causes inflammation, then moves to salivary glands and affects the saliva. This is when most animals start showing the first signs of rabies.

Rabies can be transmitted to humans, pets or other wildlife through saliva, when an infected animal bites another animal or person.

Rabies vector species are as follows:

  1. Raccoons.
  2. Skunks.
  3. Bats.
  4. Foxes.

Animals who contract rabies die or must be humanely euthanized. There is no cure and again, it’s a horrible death. But in our area, distemper is the disease that has been very bad in our raccoon populations. And what you are most likely to see. Do not allow pets or kids near a friendly raccoon if you see one. Do not touch them because they seem friendly. If containing them, do so with heavy gloves and wear a mask. Rubbermaid totes with air holes are great for securing an animal in distress.  Call either animal control if you have them, or Procyon, or visit https://learningcompass.learnflex.net/Upload/Public/WildlifeRehabilitatorsPublicList.htm to find the nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre nearest you. This government website will bring up a list of all wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Ontario for you.

Baylisascaris Procyonis

This is commonly known as raccoon roundworm. Raccoons are the host victim for this disease. Raccoons are carriers of this disease and can pass on to humans and pets. It is found in the small intestines of raccoons. Adult worms can be 15 to 20 cm in length and 1 cm in width. This is widespread in the US and Canada. If this parasite enters into the human’s system it can cause serious problems within days. It can invade the lungs, liver, eyes, brain and heart, engaging serious inflammation throughout the body. This is why when treating and caring for raccoons at the centre we wear gloves, masks and gowns, and do not share anything used with or on raccoons with any other species or area.

This is why we tell you year after year, do not take them into your home and do not let them near your kids or pets. These are wild animals. They need to stay wild and that’s what we are here for. Luckily this is rare in humans but totally something to be mindful of.

As the raccoon is the host animal therefore they show no ill effects.


Raccoons are susceptible to feline and canine parvovirus but they also have their own strain. Signs are lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite, abdominal pain and bloating, all of which occurs 4 or 5 days after contact. Diarrhea is very foul and can be severe, being runny and may contain mucus or blood. As with us when we are sick, raccoons can also become dehydrated leading to intestinal and immune system damage which can cause septic shock. This usually hits rehabilitation facilities through summer into fall. Young raccoon kits falling heavily to this disease. It’s highly contagious. An area must be quarantined if hit with parvovirus. It is spread through the feces of infected animals and then ingested by others, spreading the disease. Wildlife that can be affected with parvovirus are raccoons, mink, coyotes, wolves, foxes and bobcats. And of course unvaccinated dogs and cats.

Squirrel Pox. Or Squirrel Fibromatosis

This is a viral infection that affects our squirrels caused by the lepripox virus.  Grey squirrels rarely die from this disease, however they are carriers and if passed to a red squirrel, they die. Symptoms are wet discharging lesions or scabs around the eyes and mouth, feet and genital area. The black squirrel can also die from squirrel pox but if caught soon enough can sometimes survive with treatment. But it’s not always the case. However we do try to save them unless it’s too far advanced. The only pet that can contract squirrel pox is a domestic rabbit.

This virus is spread from close contact with the infected lesions or contaminated crusts.  It can also be spread by biting fleas or mosquitoes from one animal to another. If passed to a red squirrel, it generally passes away within 15 days. Very sad. Death from squirrel pox is very painful for the animal. They may get lethargic and start to shiver as they progress. Sometimes we need to humanely euthanize the animal to prevent further horrible suffering when we know there is nothing more we can do for them.

Avian Influenza

Avian influenza is also called bird flu. It is caused by the A-influenza virus. It is either low pathogenic or highly pathogenic. A lot of birds carry the disease making it low pathogenic. No symptoms, especially in waterfowl, and domestic poultry. Earlier in the season, we learned that the avian flu had jumped species to fox kits, we were all very surprised at this news. It was devastating to us. We had 3 kits come in suspected of rat poisoning. We were shocked when test results came back positive for highly pathogenic avian flu. We had to quarantine the kits and go into a very strict biosecurity cleaning protocol. Keeping everyone safe. We shut the centre down to new admissions for 14 days. We had no choice. Extreme safety measures were taken by their caregivers who were the only ones to enter that room.  Everything was bagged and washed separately. Besides foxes, it is suspected that the virus may possibly be able to also jump to skunks and mink who also may eat or feed infected birds to their young, however, to our knowledge, nothing has been seen in those species yet.

There are 144 possible strains of this virus. As it is possible for humans to contract this disease, we wore a lot of protective clothing and it didn’t leave that room as mentioned above. We recommend anyone handling sick or injured birds wear masks and gloves to be safe.

In Ontario if you find a sick or injured bird and you are concerned it may be avian flu you should call Ontario regional centre of Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperation at ( 866 ) 673 4781.

Signs of a sick bird are as follows:

  1. Coughing
  2. Having a hard time breathing, gasping
  3. Sneezing
  4. Lethargy, no energy
  5. They are nervous
  6. Can have tremors, seizures
  7. They are lacking in coordination
  8. Swelling around the head the neck and eye areas
  9. Diarrhea
  10. Sudden death

When handling them, wear a mask and use gloves, and give the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperation all the information on where the bird was found. They need to know that. It’s very important.

It is recommended that when you are out of the country to avoid visiting poultry farms, or areas where birds congregate in high numbers such as live bird markets. Caution should be exercised especially if the country you are visiting has had an outbreak.

If you find out you were in contact, please do the following:

  1. Shower
  2. Wash your hands well
  3. Disinfect with hand sanitizer
  4. Spray and disinfect your shoes well
  5. Wash all your clothes that you packed while away before returning home. And dry on high temperature.

Next month I will touch base on a few more diseases that we as a Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre can deal with. This helps you to learn why there are times that we have to say no. And you get redirected to another facility. And it  let’s you know that we do everything in our power to protect and care for the wildlife in our care. And our volunteers. And you.

This year we have had a lot to deal with. Animal cruelty, new diseases, so many orphans, mange, distemper and parvovirus. We have kept our veterinarians busy and they in turn have been there for us. And for that we thank Dr. Nellissa and Dr. Sherri Cox a great deal. We are extremely lucky to have them.

Remember, wild animals are not pets, you are legally allowed to have them in your care for 24 hours only. That is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry rules. If someone reports you, you could stand to lose a lot, to be heavily fined. And they will seize the animal from you and bring it to us. Please do the right thing.

Jennifer Howard

Procyon Wildlife Volunteer/photographer

Wildlife Diseases – Part One.
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