The fictional raccoon, “Meeko,” that accompanied Pocahontas in the animated Disney movie of early America of the same name depicted a chatty, expressive, and curious animal that provided comic relief. The screenwriters kept the character in the woods and, thankfully, never introduced the raccoon’s natural tendency to invade either the Indian village or English settlement into the script.
In reality, raccoons (Procyon lotor) have shown remarkable adaptation to a wide range of rural and urban environments. Their native range currently covers both Central and North America. The Centers for Disease Control and many state public health services have acknowledged the raccoon’s reproductive success and issued health guidelines and information on disease transmission when raccoons contact people and enter our dwellings.
Raccoons are attracted to urban settings because they find readily available food left for cats, dogs, and birds and within garbage cans. When raccoons find a consistent source of food, they defecate repeatedly in locations known as “latrines.” These latrines may be located in yards, woodpiles, roofs, or attics. The health concerns associated with latrines are primarily focused on the possible presence of fecal parasites and bacteria in the urine deposited in and around them. This poses a health concern to pets and people when the parasitic eggs are swallowed and hatch into larvae that migrate into different parts of the body, which can cause brain and eye damage and even death. Raccoon feces, or scat, can contain millions of roundworm eggs (Baylisascaris procyonis) that can survive in soil for years.
From a personal property claim perspective, the investigation and costs to remediate latrine trenches in a home can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Here we’ll provide an understanding of the health risks and methodology used to address the loss when a raccoon infestation occurs in the attic of a home.
What Are the Health Risks?
The health risks are real; however, a complete exposure pathway—e.g., contact between the parasite or bacteria and human—requires intimate contact. Specifically, a person must ingest materials contaminated with raccoon feces or have direct contact via broken skin with wet raccoon urine. The most vulnerable are children, who can become infected by touching contaminated soil and then ingesting it when playing in a sand box, garden, or any other area where the surface soils are contaminated.
When raccoons create a latrine trench in an attic, the probability that occupants will complete the exposure pathway is low. One of the most frequent concerns is exposure to the raccoon roundworm—a large roundworm found in the small intestine of the raccoon that can cause neurological disease. Though the occurrence of human baylisascariasis is rare, the lack of effective treatment makes this disease important to public health. “[The] people who study the pathogen are worried that the surging population of raccoons in many North American cities could lead to a rise in the number of these cases,” says Dr. Shira Shafir, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA School of Public Health in Los Angeles. Usually seen in small children, the infection can leave sufferers with profound brain damage.
A disease caused by Leptospira bacteria (leptospirosis) can be transmitted through the urine of raccoons, rats, and other animals. Leptospirosis occurs when water or moist soil contaminated with the urine of infected animals contacts the skin, nose, mouth, throat, eyes, or is swallowed. Dogs are the most likely to be exposed.
Raccoons also carry ticks, such as the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), that serve as a host for the bacterium Ehrlichia chaffeensis. Serum samples from 411 raccoons trapped in eight states within the southeastern U.S. from 1977 to 1999 identified 83 raccoons that were exposed to E. chaffeensis. In 1994, two ehrlichial pathogens (E. equi and E. phagocytophila), previously known as veterinary pathogens, were found to infect humans. The recognition of tick-borne infections as threats to human health is attributed to increased awareness by medical clinicians. As with other tick-borne infections, the rapid increase in identified cases may represent changes in the types of organisms that serve as hosts for both the tick and the bacterium.
Percentage of Raccoons Infected with Roundworms
Infected raccoons have been found throughout the United States in the Midwest, Northeast, Middle Atlantic, and West Coast states. The rate of infection can range from 3.4 percent to 100 percent, depending on the raccoons sampled. A literature survey revealed an infection frequency ranging from 0 to 100 percent in samples obtained from raccoon feces, latrines, and carcasses (see Table 1, bottom of article).
RELATED: Raccoon Infestation Remediation Protocols
Roundworm eggs remain viable in many environments for years as long as there are suitable moisture and temperature conditions. Temperature and moisture conditions in an attic, however, are often inhospitable for roundworm eggs because temperatures can attain 130 F to 160 F for sustained periods during the summer months. Thermal death point research conducted on B. procyonis eggs revealed complete deactivation at 143 F. The authors indicate that complete inactivation at relatively low temperatures will provide guidance for effective disinfection using boiling water. The research suggests that if an attic space attained temperatures greater than 145 F the eggs would be deactivated. However, due to confounding factors such as geographic location, attic design, insulation, volume of excrement, relative humidity, and other factors, we suggest that latrines be treated as infectious until the scat is sampled.
Insurance Coverage Implications
In addition to the potential health risks, raccoons can also cause destruction to insulation, drywall, roofs, HVAC systems, and other areas. When faced with a raccoon infestation, many turn to their homeowners’ insurance carrier to seek coverage for damages to their property. However, many homeowners’ insurance carriers exclude vermin and the potential damages they cause.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 defines vermin as “a noxious or mischievous animal; especially, noxious little animals or insects, collectively, as squirrels, rats, mice, flies, lice, bugs, etc.” More recently, in 1976, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defined vermin as “any of various small animals or insects, such as cockroaches or rats, that are destructive, annoying, or injurious to health.”
Courts across the country have interpreted vermin in various ways. In Christ Episcopal Church of Bastrop v. Church Insurance Company, 731 So.2d 1071 (Co.La.App. 2 Cir., 1999), the church brought an action against its property insurer to recover after an organ was damaged by mice and rats. The insurer denied coverage, contending that rats and mice are “vermin” and the damages caused fell under the vermin exclusion.
This was a matter of first impression in Louisiana. The court noted that the issue of what types of damages are excluded under the “vermin” exclusion provision has arisen in several other jurisdictions regarding damage caused by animals other than rats. In each case, the courts determined that whether a particular creature is clearly or unambiguously vermin is a case-by-case inquiry turning upon the generally understood meaning of the term.
In Episcopal, the policy of insurance did not specifically define the word vermin, and the court was unaware of any established meaning in the law of insurance. Therefore, the court determined whether the term, in its plain and ordinary sense, included rats and mice. To determine the scope, the court turned to various dictionary definitions. Ultimately, the court found that rats and mice were unambiguously included under the ambit of the term vermin in the exclusion provision of the church’s insurance policy and the policy did not provide for damages caused by rats.
In Jones v. American Economy Insurance Co., 672 S.W. 2d 879 (Co.Tex.App. 5 Dist., 1984), a Texas court determined the meaning of the word vermin as it applied to damages caused by a squirrel. The policy at issue in Jones did not define vermin, and vermin had no established meaning in the law of insurance. The court therefore determined whether the term had a readily ascertainable meaning in the plain sense of the word and made the same inquiries as the court in Episcopal.
The Jones court, based on the definition of squirrel and vermin, found that a squirrel was not a vermin and the damages done to the Jones’ home were not excluded under the loss terms of the policy. A Georgia court in North British & Mercantile Ins. Co. v. Mercer, 82 S.E. 2d 41 (Ga.App. 1954) also held that evidence was sufficient to sustain a verdict for damages caused by a squirrel absent a showing on the part of the insurer that a squirrel was a vermin.
In Umanoff v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance, 110 Misc.2d 474 (New York County, Special Term, Part I. 1981), the insurer failed to establish that it would have been unreasonable for an average person reading the homeowners’ policy to conclude that raccoons are not vermin and that its construction was the only one that could be placed on the policy. Thus, the insured was not precluded from recovering for real property damage by raccoons because of the exclusion with respect to vermin.
Other courts have held that the term vermin does not have a simple, plain, and generally accepted meaning and that it is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation; therefore, the term is ambiguous.
Accordingly, damage caused by raccoons may be covered under a homeowners’ policy depending on the jurisdiction in which the homeowner resides. However, if vermin is not clearly defined under the policy, the court may deem the exclusion ambiguous and provide coverage for the loss. Although the physical damage caused by raccoons may be afforded coverage, the cost for removal of their excrement or repair of damage caused by the raccoon’s excrement will likely be an expense for which the homeowner is liable. In addition, there could be ensuing damages to the property from a raccoon infestation, such as interior water damage from the raccoon’s entry point.
An insurer must be familiar with its policy language and the definition of vermin in its jurisdiction. Additionally, it must act swiftly to inspect the property after the raccoons have been removed and advise the insured of their post-loss obligations under the policy, including the obligation to protect the property from further damage. The field adjuster must also take caution during the inspections to avoid contact and health risks associated with raccoon excrement.
Managing Raccoon Latrines in an Attic
Following the report of a raccoon infestation, a qualified wildlife consultant should remove the raccoons from the attic space before a site inspection is conducted. Before entering the home, examine the exterior envelope for evidence of entry points. Penetrations in the soffits, roof overhangs, and screens and access to crawlspaces should be photographed. Look for evidence of feeding locations for birds, cats, and dogs.
Once inside the home, inquire with the resident as to evidence of urine stains on the ceiling and recurring attic noises. During physical examination of the attic space, use common sense. Respect the potential health concerns and investigate the loss with the appropriate personal protective equipment. If you access an attic space, wear a Tyvek suit, HEPA mask (N100), and gloves. Fecal samples, fresh or dry, should be collected in either paper (DNA testing) or plastic (egg testing) bags. Label and store each bag in a cool ice chest. Once the samples are collected, discard the personal protective equipment in a secure plastic bag.
The analysis of representative fecal samples (minimum of three) from each latrine for B. procyonis is recommended. The presence or absence of B. procyonis will help direct the selection of one of two remediation protocols that differ significantly in cost, which you can learn more about at http://cm.theclm.org. Also, there are several wildlife laboratories that will analyze raccoon feces for B. procyonis at the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management located at Cornell University, Clemson University, the University of Nebraska, and Utah State University.
Ralph E. Moon, Ph.D. CHMM, CIAQP, is with HSA Engineers & Scientists, Gina Clausen, Esq,. is with Groelle and Salmon, and Stephen M. Vantassel, CWCP, ACP, is with University of Nebraska-Lincoln, School of Natural Resources. The authors would like to thank the contribution of Jeff Wilemon, Bob Braun , P.E. and John Barkey for their editorial comments.
Frequency of Baylisascaris procyonis eggs in Raccoon Feces, Latrines, and Carcasses
No. Location Detected Source
64* Key Largo, FL 0 McCleery et al., 2005
89* Winnipeg, Manitoba 27 Sexsmith et al., 2009
456* Midwest States 17.5 Page et al., 2005
277* Ithaca, NY 20.2 Kidder et al., 1989
800** Orange County, CA 100 Evans, 2002
61** Wheaton, IL 23 Page et al., 1998
742** Midwest States 22.5 Page et al., 2005
50*** Atlanta, GA 22 Eberhard et al., 2003
118*** Knoxville, Tennessee 12 Souza et al., 2009
212*** Midwest States 44 Page et al., 2005
310*** Farmington, IL 81.9 Snyder and Fitzgerald, 1989
***Carcasses sampled (the most effective method to detect B. procyonis)