The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
August 16, 2011
Raccoon roundworm: The hidden danger in raccoon latrines
As slightly cooler weather coaxes people back outdoors to play or tend to their gardens, they would be wise to be on the lookout for an insidious danger: communal raccoon latrines.
It's not the raccoons themselves that present the threat; rather, it is their intestinal worms, a parasite that infects more than half of the raccoon population and can be deadly to humans.
Raccoon roundworms release millions of microscopic eggs, which permeate the mammal's feces. Once released, infectious larvae can survive for years in their protective eggs until a bird, small mammal or human ingests them.
If worm larvae hatch out in an animal other than a dog or raccoon, they can be carried through the bloodstream to various parts of the body, where they can bore into muscles, vital organs, eyes or even the central nervous system, causing a devastating encephalitis.
Confirmed human cases are rare, but infection is very difficult to diagnose. Treatment tends to be successful only if the infection is treated during its early stages.
Children are at a higher risk of infection than are adults, since they are more likely to ingest contaminated soil. People should always wash their hands after working in the garden or rearranging the woodpile.
Parents can steer kids clear of the threat by first scouting for latrines, which are recognizable by their generous assortment of raccoon scat:
small, dark, smelly cylinders, blunt at the ends and often filled with seeds.
People who find coon scat on their decks or
patios can dispose of the droppings in a plastic bag and disinfect the area with steam or boiling water.
Forget about trying to rid the neighborhood of raccoons. They're smart, secretive and
adaptable, and they thrive in urban areas, finding an abundance of food and shelter.
People can, however, take steps to discourage their presence:
♦ Ensure that no raccoons are present in attics, chimneys or sheds, then seal any access points
to prevent their nesting or defecating there.
♦ Collect and freeze all meat scraps, bones and grease in a screw-top plastic container before setting these food items out in the trash.
Compost vegetable waste in a mammal-proof compost bin.
♦ Don't leave pet food outdoors.
♦ Raccoons are attracted to water, so families with small children may want to rethink that birdbath or fishpond.
SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests, by Rosemary Drisdelle