They may sound like some invention out of Hollywood, but "zombie raccoons" are real and police say they are a threat to pets.
In Illinois, the Riverside Police Department is warning pet owners about raccoons carrying the distemper virus, which can cause the infected animals to walk on their hind legs, stagger and bare their teeth – the reason they're referred to as "zombies."
Distemper is one of the most serious diseases dogs can get and it's also one of the easiest to prevent, according to the American Kennel Club. The name likely sounds familiar if you've taken your dog to a veterinarian for routine care. It is among the core vaccinations your dog likely received, "along with parvovirus, canine adenovirus, and rabies vaccines," the kennel club website states.
Animals who have not had this vaccine are at high risk in the Riverside area after three reports of "zombie raccoons" recently, according to police Chief Tom Weitzel.
"We've had a number of cases concerning raccoons with distemper in our jurisdiction," Weitzel said. "If you see a sick raccoon that may be a threat to public safety, call the police."
The distemper virus affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system of dogs. Symptoms can include ocular and nasal discharge, sneezing, coughing, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors and seizures. Death can occur from secondary pneumonia or nonresponsive seizure activity, it said.
"It seems every year around this time we get a rise in calls about raccoons acting oddly and we respond to calls about raccoons that may be a danger to the public. Our policy allows us to put down animals that are suffering or pose a threat to public safety," Weitzel said.
Police will put the animals down and public works crews have been disposing of the carcasses, he said.
The Police Department said dogs in backyards, even fenced-in, can be at particular risk to wild animals. It suggests direct supervision of dogs to prevent unwanted contact with wildlife.
The best way to prevent distemper in dogs is to have them vaccinated. Twice-yearly visits to a veterinarian are recommended, and pet owners who take their dogs out for socialization with other animals, such as to dog parks or training classes or for boarding, should check whether those places require proof of vaccination.
"Animals that are most susceptible to the viruses are those that are immune-compromised by age or other illness," the Police Department noted on its website.