(CORDIS) _- You could be forgiven for thinking that a raccoon looks quite cute and that it would make the ideal furry friend, but in reality these small carnivores are no cuddly toys: greedy and difficult to control, they can adapt and survive in new habitats, and as they inhabit new areas they also spread infectious diseases.
And a new study from Spanish researchers published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research details how their expansion across Europe, particularly in Spain, is spreading infectious and parasitic diseases like rabies, jeopardising the health of native species, and people. The study warns that the raccoons’ population density could soon exceed 100 raccoons per km2; the mammal can quickly adapt to different surroundings and omnivorous food habitats, and has high reproductive potential and an absence of natural predators.
Although it originated in North America, the raccoon is an invasive species that became established in Europe due to hunting and the fur trade; it also became widely acquired as a pet. In Spain, its presence in the wild is already commonplace in Madrid and Guadalajara, and is sporadic in other regions such as the island of Mallorca.
Lead study author Beatriz Beltrán-Beck from the Hunting Resources Research Institute (IREC), a joint centre of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, the Spanish National Research Council and Castilla-La Mancha Council, warns that the raccoons’ rapid expansion and the ‘long list of illnesses that [they] may carry’ pose a significant health risk.
Although the exact impact of their expansion remains difficult to gauge, researchers believe that the increase in population numbers and expansion to other countries and/or urban environments could increase the transmission of dangerous parasites and illnesses to domestic animals and humans.
Rabies and a very pathogenic parasite to man (Baylisascaris procyonis), which was found in Germany, are some of the most significant infectious threats posed by the raccoon.
Baylisascaris procyonis is responsible for Larva migrans, an illness caused by larval migration and parasite persistence under the skin, in the brain and in other organs. In the past, this disease was found only in America, but is now emerging and on the rise in Europe.
Although rabies has been eliminated in western Europe thanks to the oral vaccination for foxes, there is still concern that the raccoon could complicate the situation in some areas of eastern Europe, where rabies is still rife. In recent years, 142 cases of rabies in raccoons have been identified, notably in Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
The raccoon has long been considered an invasive species, especially since its establishment in Europe in the 1970s and its subsequent rapid expansion. Notwithstanding this fact, the majority of European countries do not control the trade of this animal, which is introduced onto the market as a pet.
‘The case of Spain is a good example. The origin of its expansion is probably due to it escaping from the home where it was kept as a pet, and due to the owners releasing it into the countryside when it reaches adulthood and becomes aggressive,’ says Beatriz Beltrán-Beck. ‘This is mainly the case because there is a complete lack of knowledge of the biology, ecology, distribution and population density of the raccoon in Europe.
‘More epidemiological studies are necessary on the current health situation and the implementation of measures that limit the possible impact of invading raccoons.’