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The Garden State

Article published April 19, 2009

Feeding strays can cause problems for people, pets

Dear Dr. Thompson: I have been feeding some of the stray cats in the neighborhood. The other night I turned on the lights and saw a raccoon eating some of the food. Do I have to worry about my dog getting anything? How do I keep the raccoons away?

ANSWER: Your question highlights a few problems and serious health risks to you and your pets. Feeding stray cats actually contributes to the challenge of increased feral cat populations. When animals have ample food sources, they produce more offspring, and more frequently. More reproduction means more hungry mouths to feed. Increased competition for resources leads to disease outbreaks and more sick animals.

The feral cats and raccoons carry parasites and diseases that are contagious to your pets and you. The cats harbor an intestinal roundworm called Toxocara that can infect people and, in rare cases, lead to blindness. Young children are most at risk due to their habit of putting everything in their mouths and the microscopic eggs can persist in the soil for extended periods.

The unintended consequence of attracting raccoons presents another set of concerns. Raccoons are curious, mischievous, and cute, but they have the potential of transmitting fatal diseases to people, so their presence should never be encouraged anywhere people live. Eastern Ohio is struggling with preventing the westward spread of rabies in the raccoon population and it is only a matter of time before it becomes an issue in northwest Ohio. Once rabies affects the raccoons in an area, the incidence of infection in pets goes up exponentially, and human exposure is inevitable when domestic animals are involved.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection, spread via the urine of raccoons, that can cause liver and kidney failure in dogs and people. This bacterium thrives in moist conditions in our area, and raccoons' nasty habit of coming together and eliminating in a community latrine can concentrate these organisms in the environment. Children should never be allowed anywhere near a raccoon latrine and adults should take extra precautions when cleaning to protect them from Leptospirosis and a potentially fatal parasite raccoons carry called Baylisascaris.

Studies show more than 50 percent of raccoons in our area are infected with this intestinal parasite. Human cases are relatively rare, but when they occur they have tragic consequences. The larval stage of the parasite can migrate to the brain and cause inflammation and encephalitis. Once again, most cases are children 2 to 3 years old. If not recognized early, death can result.

Dogs can pick up this parasite as well but rarely show symptoms. Fortunately, the monthly heartworm preventives help prevent dogs from contracting this parasite. The simple answer is to not feed strays. Their presence in your yard is a risk to your family and your pets. Attracting wildlife like raccoons is never to be encouraged. If you suspect you have a raccoon latrine near your home, you can find pictures online. Never, ever allow children near the area. Simple steps like keeping your pets on monthly preventives will avoid bringing unwanted infections into the house.