BELLINGHAM - The next time you see a raccoon pictured with a park ranger's hat, imagine it instead with the robe and scythe of the grim reaper.
Bellingham resident Jon Shaughnessy learned about the downside of raccoons soon after he found some of their potentially deadly droppings beneath his porch.
“I said, ‘Whoa, this is serious stuff,’ ” he said. “People die from it.”
He’s right. Read on, but the story isn’t pretty.
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WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Many raccoons have roundworms called Baylisascaris in their intestines. The roundworms produce millions of eggs, which are passed on in the raccoon’s feces. Those hardy eggs can take hold inside people and can cause fatal brain infections.
WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?
Infected raccoons have been found throughout the country. The critters often defecate in woodpiles; beneath porches; by and on trees; on decks, roofs and garages; and on flat surfaces such as logs, stumps and large rocks.
When researchers inspected the backyards of 119 suburban Chicago homes, they found raccoon latrines in 61 of them. Fourteen of the latrines had roundworm eggs.
Raccoon droppings, by the way, are generally dark, tubular and blunt in shape, strong-smelling, and often full of seeds and other food debris.
HOW DO PEOPLE BECAME SICK?
People who ingest the eggs risk illness and death. Once inside your intestines, the eggs hatch into larvae, which can travel to the brain, liver, spinal cord and other parts of your body.
Victims often are children who have put infected dirt, objects or water in their mouth.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Symptoms take a week or so to appear, and vary depending on how many eggs one eats.
Symptoms include nausea, tiredness, an enlarged liver, loss of coordination, reduced alertness, loss of muscle control, coma and blindness. If you think you’re infected, call your doctor pronto.
HOW DEADLY IS IT?
The number of documented serious cases in humans is small – maybe two dozen – with no confirmed cases in Washington. But at least five people have died, and some survivors have been left neurologically crippled.
HOW CAN YOU AVOID PROBLEMS?
Make your home less tempting to raccoons. Keep a tight lid on your garbage and your sandbox. Don’t leave pet food and water outside at night. Clean up seed debris by your bird feeders.
Plug gaps or holes to keep raccoons out of your attic, basement or crawl space. Shaughnessy realized his raccoons were squeezing through two small gaps near some stairs.
“Basically, if his skull can get through the hole, his body can get through,” he said.
WHAT IF I FIND RACCOON FECES?
Wearing disposable gloves and a mask, carefully put the feces in a sealed bag to be burned, buried or placed in a landfill. Then pour boiling water over the ground or other surface where you found the scat. The eggs don’t like high heat.
Then, as always, wash your hands well with soap and water.