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Question: What is wrong with the squirrels and raccoon we have found in our yard?

June 10, 2020
Squirrel

Got Nature? BlogQuestion: We live in eastern Tippecanoe county and have a couple of adult squirrels that seem to be sick. They act like they are drunk — falling over frequently. We have two apple trees in blossom, and they come and nibble on fallen branches/blooms. As they sit on their hind legs to eat, they fall over on the ground like they are dead. Then after a few minutes/flip around and get up again, only to fall over “dead” again. This has been going on for a few weeks. We also have a baby that is not afraid of people – does not run away from me or our dog. This baby appears to have missing hair/or possible mange? We also had a raccoon in early March that came toward my husband in the yard – was not afraid of him. It did not appear rabid, but did not run away either. We do have several bird feeders, one of which squirrels and chipmunks sit on and eat the bird food. Is what they are eating making them “sick/drunk” or is this something else? I googled and found possible raccoon roundworm? What do YOU think this is — and could these cases be related? How should I dispose of any dead animals, and should I be concerned for us or our dog?

Answer: What you describe could be a number of wildlife diseases. The clinical signs of many of these diseases are often similar and infection can only be determined through specific examinations, tests or lab work. It may be canine distemper. Both squirrels and raccoon can carry canine distemper. The disease is spread by direct contact with body fluids or droppings of an infected animal. Humans cannot get distemper. However, it may also be another disease or a separate disease for each species. Your choices are really to 1) do nothing or 2) contact a wildlife rehabilitator (see below). In Indiana, wildlife rehabilitators have necessary state and federal permits to house and care for sick or injured wild animals. No federal or state agencies will provide care for sick and injured animals.

Since wild animals can carry diseases that are dangerous to people, direct contact with wildlife is discouraged. Just as the case with people, you can’t tell if an animal is sick just by looking at them. Expression of clinical signs of diseases are not the same for every animal. It may also take a period of time for clinical signs to present themselves. An animal that appears perfectly healthy may have a disease, and may be able to transmit the disease.

I could find no specific guidelines for the disposal of dead wild animals. The Indiana State Board of Animal Health lists allowable methods of dead animal disposal, but these do not apply to wildlife, which they specify as creatures not under someone’s care. This is guidance on the DNR website for:

Dead Birds: “According to Indiana State Department of Health guidelines, if you need to dispose of a dead bird, do not handle it with your bare hands. Use gloves or a plastic bag turned inside out over your hand to pick up the bird and dispose of the bird/bag in the trash. You can follow these recommended disposal procedures regardless of the cause of death, if testing is not available.”

Dead Bats: “Do NOT pick up a bat with your bare hands. Any wild animal can carry disease, therefore precautions should be taken if an animal needs to be moved. Wear heavy-duty leather gloves and scoop up the bat with a shovel or container. If the bat is alive move it to a tree branch, away from nearby buildings if possible. To dispose of a dead bat, scoop it into a plastic bag. Place it into another plastic bag, close it securely, spray with disinfectant, and dispose of it in your trash.”

• Indiana Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators (pdf), Indiana Department of Natural Resources – Fish and Wildlife.

Other Resources
Protecting Yourself from Wildlife Diseases: Raccoon Roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis), The Education Store, Purdue Extension resource center
Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory
Orphaned Wildlife, Got Nature? blog
Orphaned & Injured Animals, Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)
Purdue Extension – FNR: Ask An Expert, Video, Purdue Extension –  Forestry and Natural Resources YouTube channel

Brian MacGowan, Wildlife Extension Specialist
Purdue University, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources

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