Northern Raccoon: frequent questions


Do raccoons get rabies?
The vast majority of raccoons don’t have rabies. Still, raccoons are the most frequently reported rabid animals. If you see one in the daytime, it’s probably a hungry mother — they have high energy needs while feeding their young and sometimes come out to eat, even in daylight. Symptoms of rabies include lethargy, stupor, walking in circles, paralysis of one or both back legs, falling over, eye or nose discharge, or unexplained aggressiveness. Call Animal Control if you observe these behaviors. Always watch raccoons from a distance; even healthy ones will act aggressive and bite if frightened or cornered.

Why do raccoons wash their food?
Many of us learned as young schoolchildren about the raccoon’s habit of “washing” his food. It seems like a really cool thing to do, but the truth is that raccoons don’t actually wash food. It’s more accurate to call it a moistening, and no one is really sure why they do it. Theories abound:

One theory is associated with their tactile ability: Their sense of touch is their strongest sense and perhaps raccoons wet their food to somehow feel its texture better. An old theory held that raccoons have no salivary glands and need to wet their food in order to digest it. But research has since shown that raccoons have normal salivary glands.

Research has shown that captive raccoons do douse their food if water is made available to them, but raccoons in the wild douse or don’t douse, depending on where their food is located and its proximity to water. And it seems they like to dunk regardless of whether their food is clean, dirty, wet or dry.

Dunking food is so ingrained that raccoons are known to go through the hand motions even when water isn’t available. Some researchers think this is simply a process of removing dirt and sand that would hurt their teeth, and others have reasoned that raccoons manipulate their food to soften it for consumption or to ensure it doesn’t contain sharp bones or other inedible particles. Finally, there’s the theory that they wet their food because, well, just because they do, as an evolutionary behavior for which there is no longer a practical reason.

How can I tell if raccoons are visiting my yard?
Start watching after dark. You might hear them if they’re crashing about your garbage cans or bird feeders. If you have a pond, they might be trying to catch fish there or moistening food. Walk into your yard with a flashlight. Look up into the trees, too. The light itself won’t alarm them, but keep your distance, for your own safety.

You can practically ensure seeing a raccoon if you place a bowl with some canned dog food outside every evening. Don’t feed them indefinitely, as a matter of safety for them and for yourself. Encouraging them to eat there regularly will lead to nuisance problems: Some people, for instance, have reported raccoons scratching and tearing at their door if food isn’t left out for them.

How smart are raccoons?
Very smart. By some accounts, they’re as smart as primates. William R. West, a wildlife photographer and naturalist, relates this example of their intelligence regarding the pet raccoon he had as a boy:

The raccoon, called Sparky, loved raw eggs. One day Sparky was moved to a new cage that had a chicken wire floor that was raised several inches above the ground. His old cage had a solid floor. On this day, Sparky was given a raw egg and he proceeded to follow his usual procedure of biting off the top of the egg so he could lap out the contents. However, the egg tilted and spilled its contents which, of course, drained through the wire. Sparky was given another egg. This time he went directly to his food bowl and held the egg over it as he opened and ate it. He never again lost an egg through the floor.

Dick Meister tells a first-person account of trying to keep a group of raccoons out of his vegetable garden by setting up a water-spraying device, the raccoons simply aimed the sprayer away from the garden. Why they invited the coonskin cap

What should I do if I find a baby raccoon?
Orphans are rare. He may have wandered or fallen from his den. Observe the baby from a distance for several hours. The mother may be out foraging or even watching you from nearby. When she returns, she’ll carry him back to her den. If you know where the den is, while wearing heavy gloves, gently pick him up and return him to it.

If you’re certain he’s orphaned, while wearing heavy gloves place him in a lidded box (with air holes) or carrying case, with a towel in the bottom for warmth. Don’t try to feed him; the wrong kind of food could be harmful. Get him to a wildlife rehabilitator, as soon as possible. If you don’t know who to call, try this site. You might also be able to get information from your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

Granted, the baby is adorable and it’s tempting to try raising him yourself, but it’s best not to. Depending on his age and condition, he may need special foods or medical treatment for parasites or disease. An experienced rehabilitator will know just how to care for him so that he can be returned to the wild. Young raccoons need to stay fearful of humans for their own safety. Another thing, raccoons aren’t placid animals; even babies can give a serious bite and they become difficult to handle as they get older.

I’m raising a baby raccoon
It’s best not to keep a raccoon as a pet. Both as babies and adults they require a lot of attention in order to socialize them to humans. As adults, they’re unpredictable and can become aggressive and difficult to control. Raccoons are smart (according to some reports, as smart as primates) and curious by nature. This leads to destructive behavior inside the house (what’s behind that door, what’s inside that jar, what’s on top of the curtain rod, what’s in the refrigerator, what’s inside the sofa cushion…?), or to their having to be constantly caged, a miserable fate. During mating season they become frustrated and aggressive in response to their inability to find a mate. Also, it is hard to find a veterinarian who will treat them, as they’re susceptible to distemper.

Worse still, once a raccoon owner realizes the warnings aren’t exaggerated, that raccoons really don’t make good pets, what’s to be done with the “pet?”  A pet raccoon can’t be released back into the wild. That’s because babies learn survival techniques from their mothers during their first three months of life, so lacking that knowledge means the poor pet won’t know how to defend himself or find food, water and shelter. The only realistic option may be to have him euthanized, a tragedy that could have been avoided.

I found an injured raccoon
If the injury doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, leave him alone. He’ll growl and snarl and you should take the warning seriously — he’s frightened and probably in pain, he’ll bite if he gets a chance. If he definitely needs help, take care not to get bitten or scratched and throw a blanket over him. This will help to calm him. Use a shovel or broom to gently scoop the whole bundle into a box (with plenty of air holes) or a pet carrier. The best choice is a wire crate, as a raccoon can bite right through softer material, should he decide to. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately. If you don’t know who to call, try this site You might also be able to get information from your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

If he was behaving abnormally (see the rabies section above), stay well away from the raccoon and call Animal Control. Follow him, if possible, so you can direct Animal Control to his location.

Are pets safe from raccoons
Yes and no. The vast majority of raccoons are not rabid, but they are susceptible to rabies. So, keep pets vaccinated against rabies. Raccoons are also susceptible to distemper (a virus), which can be transmitted to pets. Most raccoons carry a parasite, Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm that’s harmless to them, but dangerous to humans and pets.
 On the other hand, raccoons just want to be left alone and won’t attack unless threatened.

Trapped in a room, attic, chimney
See: How to humanely remove wildlife from people spaces