Park raccoons ill, dog owners cautioned

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Distemper outbreak sickens dozens of Central Park raccoons, prompting city to warn dog owners against letting pets off-leash


  • Park rangers have collected 85 sick or dead raccoons in Central Park since a first case of distemper was identified in late June. Photo: Christian Kaff, via Flickr

  • City authorities posted advisories notifying dog owners of a recent outbreak of distemper in Central Park raccoons. Photo: Michael Garofalo


Experts are urging Manhattan dog owners to keep pups on a short leash in Central Park because of a contagious disease affecting local raccoons.

An outbreak of distemper in park raccoons prompted the city’s Parks and Health departments to issue a joint advisory August 9 “strongly recommending that dogs be kept on leashes” at all times, including during early morning and nighttime off-leash hours when dogs are permitted run free in designated areas.

The warning comes after a pair of recent encounters between dogs and raccoons, one near West 67th Street and the other near the East Drive at the level of East 102nd Street.

“Parks and Health have been working in coordination since raccoons in the park first tested positive for the virus,” the agencies said. “Distemper does not cause a threat to humans, but unvaccinated dogs and other wildlife can be affected.”

Since the first case was identified in late June, city park rangers have collected 85 sick or dead raccoons. Parks officials believe the distemper outbreak is confined to Central Park and have not found any cases of rabies. City officials recently put up signs near entrances to the park advising visitors of the issue.

Dr. Lori Bierbrier, the medical director of ASPCA’s New York City community medicine department, said that dogs with up-to-date vaccinations should be protected from infection, and that re-vaccinating should be unnecessary unless the dog is overdue for a booster shot.

Bierbrier said that raccoons with the early stages of distemper “may look like they have a cold with watery nose and eyes.”

“As the disease progresses they may exhibit unusual behaviors including a wobbly walk, acting aggressive or confused, and wandering aimlessly,” she said. “These late signs are indistinguishable from rabies so it is best to steer clear of a sick raccoon.”

West Sider Tammy Blazin said she is “absolutely concerned” about the distemper outbreak as she walked Freely, her Parson Russell terrier, through Central Park on Monday. Blazin said she had learned of the issue from other dog owners and from the recently posted advisory signage, and felt that city agencies had done a good job of spreading awareness. “I probably wouldn’t let her off of her leash anyway, but I definitely won’t now,” Blazin said.

Dr. Babette Gladstein, an Upper East Side veterinarian, advised dog owners to be mindful of distemper and to keep dogs on a leash in the park — and to keep young puppies who have not yet been vaccinated out of the park entirely — but said that dog owners should also be cautious of roundworms commonly found in raccoon feces, which, unlike distemper, can be transmitted to humans and pose a health risk.

“Since there’s such a proliferation of raccoons, people have to be cautioned that they should wash their hands when they’ve been in the park, that they shouldn’t sit on the grass or walk in the park barefoot, and that they should make sure none of their food touches the ground if they have a picnic,” Gladstein said.

City agencies advised visitors to call 311 and request a park ranger if they see a sick or injured raccoon.

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