TOPEKA — The wildlife and exotic pet expert at Kansas State University’s veterinary college Tuesday sounded the alarm about an influx of disease-packing raccoons posing a health risk to dogs.

The Veterinary Health Center in Manhattan said an unusual number of raccoons have been seen by clinic staff with canine distemper. It’s a highly contagious viral disease that can spread to susceptible dogs, and the evidence suggests these critters with dexterous front paws and distinctive facial masks are putting family pets in harm’s way.

“While we may see raccoons on a fairly regular basis, there seems to be a recent uptick in cases,” said James Carpenter, professor of exotic pet, wildlife and zoological medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “The raccoons are often found out during the day, showing abnormal behavior such as incoordination, difficulty in walking and aimless wandering.”

Carpenter said there was no way to control distemper in wild animal populations. It’s important dogs be vaccinated against the disease at six weeks of age and on monthly intervals until 20 weeks of age. These shots should be reinforced with a vaccination every one to three years.

And, he said, dog owners were advised against allowing their pets to come in contact with the wild raccoons of Kansas.

Starting in August, animal control officers in Manhattan reported picking up two or three raccoons each week.

“They either are just sitting back or some of them can be aggressive,” said George Sears, animal control officer for the city of Manhattan. “Or they’ll walk for a couple of feet, then they stumble, they fall down and sit right back up, giving us what’s called the ‘1,000-yard stare’ — like they’re staring out into nothing. That’s when we usually apprehend them.”

He said the public shouldn’t attempt to capture or handle these animals because rabies can be clinically confused with canine distemper.