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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Cases of canine distemper in East Tennessee wildlife have increased drastically this year, a University of Tennessee veterinarian said Wednesday.

Dr. Susan Orosz, associate professor of comparative medicine at UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said UT has identified more than 40 cases this year in wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes.

Orosz said normal incidence is less than five cases per year. The increase is a natural fluctuation — a peak in the cycle that kills so many of its hosts that it finally stops spreading, she said.

”Right now there is a focus of the disease in the area, and it appears to be mostly in West Knox County,” Orosz said, ”but by next spring, the rate of disease should be back to normal.”

The rise greatly increases the threat to pets that are not vaccinated. Cats and humans cannot get the virus, but it causes respiratory infections, seizures and death in dogs and ferrets. There is no cure, but vaccinations will prevent the disease.

Dr. John New, UT associate professor of comparative medicine, said pet owners should make sure their animals are vaccinated yearly.

”This disease is completely preventable,” New said. ”Many dogs will die or have to be euthanized after contracting distemper. If they survive, they often continue to have muscle twitches and seizures.”