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An Observation of Aberrant Behavior in a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) Infected with Canine Distemper Virus
Sean M. Richards, Katherine A.E. Rainwater, James R. Stephens, and Thomas R. Rainwater

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 7, Number 3 (2008): 556–558

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An Observation of Aberrant Behavior in a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) Infected with Canine Distemper Virus Sean M. Richards1,*, Katherine A.E. Rainwater2, James R. Stephens3, and Thomas R. Rainwater4 Abstract - While the occurrence of canine distemper virus (CDV) in Procyon Lotor (Raccoon) is well documented, detailed descriptions of the behavior of CDV-infected individuals are scant. Here, we report a sequence of particularly odd behaviors of a CDV-infected Raccoon encountered in rural Arkansas. These behaviors included lack of fear, apparent loss of coordination and other actions consistent with a neurologic abnormality. CDV associated encephalitis was confirmed by histological examination and polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Procyon lotor (L.) (Raccoon) susceptibility to canine distemper virus (CDV) infection is well documented (Budd 1970, Deem et al. 2000, Hemboldt and Jungherr 1955, Williams 2001). The incidence of CDV is also well described; the virus is endemic to North America and has been reported in numerous areas where Raccoon populations exist (Evans 1984, Hoff et al. 1974, Roscoe 1993). In some areas, up to 50% of the individuals in the Raccoon population have positive CDV titers (Arjo et al. 2005). In New Jersey, CDV accounted for 50% of debilitating diseases in a population of Raccoons (Roscoe 1993). The clinical presentation of neurologic CDV infection is dependent on the region of the brain that is affected and the severity of the disease (Williams 2001). In general, the behavior of CDV-infected carnivores has been characterized as abnormal, lacking fear, and suggestive of rabies (Gillin et al. 2006). In CDV-infected Raccoons, neurologic signs are described as being similar to that exhibited by infected Canis familiaris L. (Domestic Dog), which can include abnormally increased sensitivity to stimuli, rigidity, seizures, impaired balance and coordination, bilateral hindlimb weakness or weakness in all four limbs, loss of sensory input to appropriately coordinate muscle activity, and involuntary repetitive rhythmic contractions of muscles (Greene and Appel 2006, Williams 2001). Budd (1970) described some behavioral signs of CDV infection in Raccoons including aggressiveness and convulsive movements. Roscoe (1993) reported the behavior of 124 CDV-infected Raccoons in New Jersey as lethargic, comatose, or incoordinated. Although possible behaviors that could be displayed by Raccoons with central nervous system CDV infection are well described, detailed specific accounts of the behavior of these animals are scant. Here, we report noteworthy (and different) behavior of a CDV-infected Raccoon encountered in rural Arkansas. On 27 December 2002 at approximately 2000 hr, two of us (S.M. Richards and J.R. Stephens) were approached by an adult male Raccoon while standing next to a campfire in Washington County, AR (35º58'18.21"N, 94º09'06.20"W). The Raccoon exhibited no observable fear of us or the fire and appeared indifferent to both. We stood motionless and observed the Raccoon’s actions. Despite our proximity to the fire (<1 m), the Raccoon approached us, leisurely grasped one of our pant legs, and slowly rubbed the fabric between its front paws for approximately 10 seconds. The Raccoon then released the pant leg, and for the next 20 minutes (approximately) slowly milled about at our feet (within 1–3 m) in a manner similar to a Felis catus L. (Domestic Cat). At one point during this period, the Raccoon stopped, sat relatively motionless, and gazed toward the forest for approximately 2 minutes. Next, the Raccoon turned and walked to the edge of the campfire. The Raccoon then worked a Notes of the Southeastern Nat u ral ist, Issue 7/3, 2008 556 2008 Southeastern Naturalist Notes 557 smoldering ember from the fire with its front paws, slowly rolled it backward away from the fire, sat down, and began rolling the ember up to the middle of its chest, down, and back again. This behavior continued for approximately 2 minutes. During this period, the Raccoon continually emitted slow, guttural, grunting vocalizations. The ember was hot enough to singe the hair on the chest and abdomen, but the animal did not appear to fl inch or otherwise react to the heat of the ember. Although within very close proximity, the Raccoon showed no interest in food items at the camp. We suspected the Raccoon’s aberrant behavior was the result of rabies or other infectious neurologic disease, and euthanized it with a 0.22-caliber rifle. The carcass was transported from the camp on ice and next stored at -25 °C until being shipped to the Arkansas Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Little Rock, AR) for pathological examination. The Arkansas Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory conducted a suite of examinations on the male Raccoon. A gross (external) pathological examination indicated no visible lesions. A microscopic examination of tissue sections found that the cerebrum had a mild lymphocyte aggregation around the vessels of the cerebrum, indicating infl ammation, and proliferation of neuron support cells common with infl ammation of the brain that is consistent with viral encephalitis. The lungs displayed a mild interstitial pneumonia. The heart, liver, gastrointestinal tract, adrenal gland, urinary bladder, and kidney were unremarkable (aside from bullet damage). Histological examination of the brain tissue was negative for rabies virus; however, tissue was positive for CDV based on a polymerase chain reaction assay (PCR primers from Integrated DNA Technologies, Coralville, IA). While aberrant behavior of CDV-infected carnivores has been previously described, most of those accounts were in a controlled laboratory setting or un-substantiated by pathological diagnosis. The behavior of the Raccoon described herein is not only unique but directly attributable to a clinically diagnosed CDV infection. To our knowledge, the present account is the first field description of such unique behavior (i.e., manipulation of the pant leg and handling of embers) associated with laboratory-confirmed CDV infection in wild Procyon lotor. Acknowledgments. We thank J. Britt, D.V.M. for his thorough examination of the Raccoon. Literature Cited Arjo, W., C.E. Fisher, J. Armstrong, D. Johnson, and F. Boyd. 2005. Monitoring Raccoon rabies in Alabama: The potential effects of habitat and demographics. Pp. 14–25, In D.L. Nolte and K.A. Fagerstone (Eds.). 11th Annual Wildlife Damage Management Conference. Traverse City, MI. Budd, J. 1970. Distemper. Pp. 36–49, In J. Davis, L. Karstad, and D. Tariner (Eds.). Infectious Diseases of Wild Mammals, 1st Edition. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA. Deem, S.L., L.H. Spelman, R.A. Yates, and R.J. Montali. 2000. Canine distemper in terrestrial carnivores: A review. Journal of Zoological and Wildlife Medicine 31:441–451. Evans, R. 1984. Studies of a virus in a virological system: Naturally occurring and experimental canine distemper in the Raccoon (Procyon lotor). M.Sc. Thesis. Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, Edwardsville, IL. 135 pp. Gillin, C.M., J. Martin, and G. Kaufman. 2006. Tufts Open Courseware, Carnivore Medicine, Tufts University. Available online at Accessed July 17, 2007. Greene, C.E., and M.J. Appel. 2006. Canine distemper. Pp. 32–46, In C.E. Greene (Ed.). Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Elsevier, St. Louis, MO. 1424 pp. 558 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 7, No. 3 Hemboldt, C., and E. Jungherr. 1955. Distemper complex in wild carnivores simulating rabies. American Journal of Veterinary Research 16:463–469. Hoff, G., W.J. Bigler, S.J. Proctor, and J.P. Rodgers.1974. Epizootic of canine distemper virus infection among urban Raccoons and Gray Foxes. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 10:423–428. Roscoe, D.E. 1993. Epizootiology of canine-distemper in New Jersey Raccoons. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 29:390–395. Williams, E.S. 2001. Canine distemper. Pp. 50–58, In E.S. Williams and I.K. Barker (Eds.). Infectious Diseases of Wild Mammals, 3rd Edition. Iowa State University Press: Ames, IA. 558 pp. 1The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, 615 McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37403. 2University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616. 3903 Raintree, Siloam Springs, AR 72761. 4The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University, PO Box 764, Jefferson, TX 75657. *Corresponding author -