Virus breaks out in Washtenaw County animals

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 6:10pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

In early June, the Humane Society of Huron Valley noticed “strange” behavior starting to occur frequently among the raccoons and skunks of Washtenaw County. The group said they received numerous calls from concerned residents and documented a 45 percent increase in sick wildlife being treated by their facilities since the beginning of the year.

On June 6, HSHV published a press release to notify the public. In the release, HSHV CEO Tanya Hilgendorf was quoted in the press release saying there was a presumed outbreak of distemper and parvovirus in the community.

“We don’t want to cause alarm, but this gives rise to an important reminder to keep your pets up to date on vaccines and be very careful where you go with puppies who haven’t yet been fully vaccinated and older animals with weaker immune systems,” Hilgendorf said.

Distemper and parvovirus are not a threat to human immune systems, but can be fatal for unvaccinated, very young or very old animals. Though more common in dogs, other house pets such as cats may contract either virus through contact with the infected animals, resulting in serious gastrointestinal and neurological problems.

HSHV communications director Wendy Welch said the release was issued just as a reminder for pet owners to vaccinate their companion animals as the diseases in question are easily preventable.

“All of our services are to keep people with their companion animals and serve the animals and people in our community,” Welch said.

Since the release, Welch said there has been a decrease in calls from concerned residents and an uptick in pet vaccinations.

Welch said she has not worked on anything similar recently, but she and Molly Tamulevich, Michigan State director for the Humane Society of the United States, both said they are not uncommon.

“These outbreaks pop up time to time … and sometimes there’s an increase in reporting, especially with areas with a really high population density, where you might just have an increase in reports,” Tamulevich said.

Tamulevich, an Ann Arbor native, attributes this outbreak and others like it to the increase of urban wildlife, animals who adapt to the city infrastructure built around them.

“As our communities sometimes encroach into habitats, we sometimes displace wildlife, and that wildlife can either thrive alongside human beings or not thrive alongside human beings,” Tamulevich said. “Some species — raccoons, possums, sometimes even coyotes — they do well because human beings often provide them with intentional or unintentional sources of food. Wildlife has been existing in human settlements for thousands of years, but in a city like Ann Arbor, you have healthy populations of squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possums, and they live alongside us and within dense human centers.”

Welch agreed and said residents’ have a responsibility to respect the animals living among them.

“There’s a whole ‘phenomenon’ of urban wildlife, and as we develop as humans and live closer and closer to wildlife spaces, we encroach on animals,” Welch said. “It’s definitely affecting them, and we need to take into account where they live and how we want to live.”

Welch said raccoons and skunks are commonly the “victims” of diseases, such as this spring’s outbreaks of distemper and parvovirus. Additionally, Welch said spring, which is birthing season for these animals, is the time of the year most susceptible to such an outbreak.

Tamulevich advised concerned pet owners to engage in “common-sense” practices which prevent animal encroachment on their property. This “preventative maintenance” includes feeding animals inside and clearing brush.

“I think that humans and wildlife can coexist peacefully,” Tamulevich said. "We just have to educate ourselves on the safest way to coexist with wildlife and to prevent these negative interactions before they begin, whether that’s through vaccination or creating humane backyards and habitats where wildlife can thrive without becoming a nuisance.

Business junior Nathan Mudge said he sees animals around campus often, and they are usually interacting well with students.

“We have so many clubs and so many people supporting animal rights that it would be hard for U-M not to treat animals well,” Mudge said.

Mudge said he hopes the outbreak dies down before students and their pets return to campus.

“I just hope the viruses continue to lose strength, because it would be really sad if this turned fatal,” Mudge said. “I’m glad things are looking up.”