Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of baby rabbit © David L. Misterek

Enjoy the outdoors but "Leave Wildlife Alone."
© David L. Misterek

June 2011

Creature Comforts

Here's to your health

Kathryn A. Kahler

A chance wildlife encounter can be thrilling. But wild animals, as cute and cuddly as they may be, can carry diseases that could threaten both you and your pet's health. "Leaving Wildlife Alone" is an important lesson, not only for the animal's sake, but for yours as well.

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be transmitted from wildlife to humans from direct contact (picking up an animal, a scratch or bite), inhaling spores from contaminated soil, or ingesting parasite eggs. Examples of avian zoonotic diseases include avian influenza, chlamydiosis, histoplasmosis and salmonellosis. Examples of mammalian zoonotic diseases include rabies, Hantavirus, tularemia and baylisascaris procyonis, the raccoon roundworm. Vectors or biting insects, such as ticks or mosquitoes, also can transmit disease from wildlife to humans. For example, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis are transmitted through the bite of a deer tick, and West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes.

It's important to be aware of zoonotic diseases because some can cause illness, or even be fatal. Rabies can be transmitted through a scratch or bite, or even direct contact with an infected animal's saliva. Histoplasmosis is transmitted by the inhalation of fungal spores released from disturbed soil in bird or bat roosting areas. Baylisascaris procyonis is transmitted to humans or pets when they accidentally ingest parasitic roundworm eggs. Eggs are passed through the raccoon's feces, which may be on the ground or clinging to surrounding vegetation.

Zoonotic diseases also can be a challenge to differentially diagnose from other diseases. If you believe you have been exposed to a zoonotic disease, it's important to let medical personnel know so they can provide the right treatment. In some cases, more than one disease creates similar symptoms. In other cases, mild infections may not develop symptoms, so people don't even realize they've been exposed to a zoonotic disease. Those who may have the highest risk of exposure are hunters, trappers, outdoor enthusiasts, taxidermists, wildlife biologists, conservation wardens, game farm workers and farmers.

Other non-zoonotic wildlife diseases not transmissible to humans can still be a danger to pets. Canine distemper virus (CDV) and canine parvovirus (CPV) affect many wild species including raccoon, fox, and coyote, as well as unvaccinated domestic dogs. It's important to keep domestic animals up-to-date on vaccinations because diseases like CDV and CPV can be transmitted through direct or indirect contact with a variety of wildlife species.

Here are steps you can take to protect yourself, your family and your pets from wildlife diseases:

  • Never pet or hand-feed any wild animal.
  • Avoid a wild animal that exhibits unusual behavior, such as aggression or loss of fear of humans.
  • Do not keep a wild animal as a pet.
  • Keep pets and livestock up-to-date on vaccinations.
  • Wear gloves if you need to handle a dead animal. When possible, seal the dead animal in a plastic bag and bury it. You can also contact your local DNR office to report the death.
  • Use masks, gloves, boots, coveralls, respirators, and goggles at appropriate times when in contact with wildlife. Consider getting the rabies pre-exposure vaccine.
  • Seal off openings to attics, chimneys, sheds and barn lofts so raccoons and other wildlife cannot nest there.
  • Use care when handling and eating wild game. Wear gloves when field dressing, and be sure to sterilize utensils and cook meat thoroughly.
  • Avoid drinking untreated and inadequately filtered surface water.
  • Protect yourself from ticks and other biting insects by wearing light colored long pants and sleeves, tucking pant legs into socks, and using insect repellent that contains DEET. Performa thorough "tick check," and carefully remove any ticks, without squeezing them.
  • Read up on wildlife diseases at Wildlife Health or at USGS National Wildlife Health Center under the "Education and Outreach" section.

Turtle crossing

The one exception to the "Leave Wildlife Alone" rule might be if you see a turtle crossing the road. This time of year is dangerous for these pokey pedestrians because it's their nesting season and many turtles encountered on roadways are probably females looking for a good nesting site.

What can you do if you see a turtle crossing a road? If you are driving, first make sure it's safe to slow down and pull completely onto the road's shoulder. Do not put yourself in danger by walking into traffic. Consider safety first for both yourself and the turtle. Carefully pick up the turtle by holding onto the sides of its shell, away from the head. If it's a large snapping turtle, avoid getting close to its head by holding onto the shell closer to the rear. Move the turtle to the side of the road in the same direction it was headed. If there's a barrier at the roadside, put it on the other side of the barrier, further away from traffic.