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What is a raccoon?
A raccoon is one of the most fascinating and among the most intelligent of wild animals. It is the state animal of Tennessee. Oh, you want to know more - o.k., read on (luckily for you, there won't be a test). Scientifically, raccoons make up the genus Procyon of the Family Procyonidae (5 toes on each foot, walk flat footed, tail rings), of the Order Carnivore (Primarily meat-eaters, large canine teeth ), of the Class Mammalia (Hair, warm blooded, drink milk from mother). There are seven species of raccoons including the common North American Procyon lotor (lotor from Latin "washer"), the South American crab-eating raccoon Procyon cancrivorus, and five other species, each confined to one or more small islands off Florida and Mexico and in the West Indies, as well as 25 geographic subspecies. Their closest relatives in the Procyonidae family include the ringtails, coatis and coatimundis but they are also related to the kinkajou, olingos and the lesser panda. The common name "raccoon" comes from the Indian word "aroughcun" or "arakum," meaning "he scratches with his hands." Tip: But if all these names are too much too remember, you can just call them Bandit, or Meeko, or Rocky, or Spot.
Socially, while raccoons are considered as usually solitary, it is the adult males which tend to be solitary; matriarchal family groups are quite social and will feed and den together into the fall. Raccoons are usually thought of as nocturnal animals. However, while they tend to be most active at night, healthy raccoons will also forage during the day. This is particularly true of nursing females. Despite their classification as carnivores, raccoons are really opportunistic omnivores (both meat-eater and plant-eater, as well as garbage can raider). Raccoons do not hibernate. They go through a period of decreased activity in the winter, which is referred to as torpor, but it is not technically hibernation. Winter also coincides with their mating season. So if you are used to seeing raccoons on your property and then saycome December you wonder where they have gone, they are either sleeping or...ahem...err...not sleeping. The raccoon is one of the most vocal of night animals and during mating season will scream, mew, growl and whistle. Baby raccoons are especially vocal and a rehabber will quickly learn to distinguish their numerous different sounds. Some say the raccoon can make over 200 different sounds. Observation: The one I love most is the purr-like sound they make. Like when my little guys are being bottle-fed and their tummies are almost full. Pure contentment. The one I hate the most is the pitiful wailing sound these same little ones make the first night they are weaned off the bottle. Maybe it's the mother it me. All I know is it breaks my heart.
Raccoons are inquisitive and seldom pass up the opportunity to investigate an interesting smell or crevice. They will probe a crack with their front feet and pull anything of interest from its hole for closer inspection. Observation: My current rehabs loved probing the space between my oven door and the bottom drawer on my stove - until they starting pulling out insulation and I put a stop to their "fun"!
Their fur is long and dense, a grizzled salt and pepper that varies from grayish-brown tipped with black above to light gray below. Albinistic (white) and Melanistic (black) individuals are said to be not uncommon. (I have seen pictures of a White, Red and Golden raccoon but never a totally Black one. If anyone has or knows where pics of them are, please e-mail me.) The raccoon is easily identified by its black face mask and ringed tail. The mask helps reduce glare while aiding in camoflauge, and may enhance night vision. The tail usually has 5 to 7 complete dark rings, alternating with broader brown or gray rings, that completely encircle the tail and end in a dark tip. The tail is used as fat storage (of particular importance in the winter), balance when climbing , a brace when sitting up like a little teddy bear, and (at least in the case of the little ones I rehab) to wag when they are happily nursing away.
What isn't a raccoon (or what a raccoon isn't)?
A raccoon isn't a dog or a cat although, while in rehab, baby raccoons are not too unlike a kitten (or, as they grow, a small tiger!). Hence, raccoons should not be kept as pets. If you keep it caged, all you will have is a caged wild animal, not a pet. If you let it have the run of your house, then it will be the raccoon keeping you as a pet as it does what it pleases to the house and you. And an adult raccoon is quite capable of causing a great amount of damage, to both you and your possessions, in a very short amount of time! See my Raccoons as Pets page. If this doesn't sway you, make sure you know what you are getting into first. Just because you can tame it, doesn't make it a pet. Make sure you have a vet that will treat the raccoon and plently of liability insurance in case a guest is attacked. As a species, a raccoon isn't an endangered animal (yet!). Long common in the eastern United States, a continent-wide population explosion occurred in the 1940's as raccoons expanded their range and increased in abundance. According to the Nebraska State Wildlife, there were at least 15 times more raccoons in North American in the 1980's than in the 1930's. A testimony to this remarkably resourceful animal and its ability to adapt and survive despite the fact that it's number one enemy is humankind. Tip: Finally, as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of the Internal Revenue Servicewithasmile vs. Volunteer Wildlife Rehabbers United in Poverty, raccoons are not, I repeat, NOT dependents for income tax purposes. Sorry.
Do raccoons wash their food?
Many people wrongly believe raccoons "wash" their food. Others have stated that this behavior is only something observed with captive raccoons, related to their instinct to search in crevices between rocks in streams and creeks for crayfish and other goodies. Still others say they are not really "washing" but do this to moisten their food. (Despite what these people may have heard, raccoons DO have salivary glands.) And some people mistakenly think raccoons must be very clean animals because they wash their food. From my personal observations, all are wrong! Raccoons will put their food in water. True. However, they will do this even if the water is the same water they just went to the bathroom in. (Raccoons love going potty in water bowls - that's why my rehabs have a water bottle and a litter box .) I have observed my rehabs out in the woods. They will "wash" their food in the dirt. This has nothing to do with cleaning or moistening it or captive behavior. I believe it to be instinctive behavior. This activity increases their tactile senses. They can "feel" their food, and thereby learn to identify it through their highly developed senses of touch and smell. My rehabs eat from a communal bowl and, because they are used to this sharing, competition is almost non-existent and they may take the time to "wash" their food. They will also "wash" a treat they are handed if they are unfamiliar with it. However, when I am handing out a treat that they know and love, such as grapes or dog biscuits, competition is fierce and "washing" is extremely rare because the item can be stolen too easily. (Yes, raccoons are thiefs. An example: By the time I gave a third raccoon a grape, the first one had finished his and then proceeded to try and pry open that raccoon's mouth to rob his grape!) Observation: Most of all, in my opinion anyway, when they are not concerned with it being stolen, raccoons "wash" their food simply because they enjoy playing with it just like little kids!
What can you tell me about raccoons' hands and feet?
Raccoons are extremely agile climbers (and descend trees head-first) and have nimble feet, but they are flat-footed like humans and bears and are relatively slow runners. Their rear legs are slightly longer than their front legs which, combined with their flat-footedness, causes them to waddle when they walk. The raccoons footprints resemble those of a human being. Because their front toes can be opened wide, the forepaws can be used skillfully to handle food and other objects. Using their sensitive hand-like front paws, they can catch fish and small prey and bring food to their mouths and hold it while they eat. With these tiny "hands", the raccoon can also open locks, unlatch bird feeders, open up garbage cans, etc. I was amazed at how luxuriously silky-soft the soles of my rehabs' feet were, even after becoming master tree climbers. Raccoons come equipped with 20 non-retractable claws. Click HERE for a close-up look at their claws. Tracks: Hindprint 3 1/4 - 4 1/4" long, much longer than wide; resembles a miniature human footprint with abnormally long toes. Foreprint much shorter, 3", almost as wide as long; claws show on all 5 toes. Tracks are large for animal's size because the Raccoon is flat-footed, like bears and men. Stride 6 - 20", averaging 14". When walking, left hindfoot is almost beside right forefoot. When running, makes many short, lumbering bounds, bringing hindfeet down ahead of forefeet in a pattern like oversize squirrel tracks. Click HERE for an animation of tracks in walking motion.
How big can raccoons get?
Adult raccoons may be anywhere from 24 to 40 inches in length (including 8-12 inches for tail) and weigh 14 to 40 pounds depending upon locale (larger raccoons in the north) and sex (males are larger than females). Average is about 3 feet and 25-30 pounds. Captive raccoons can weigh considerably more than their wild neighbors and they have a tendency to obescity. I would venture a safe guess that the male raccoon who weighed a record 62 pounds was not found in the wild. Tip: Rehabbers are reminded that their little guys who have been in rehab will be bigger than raccoons the same age being raised in the wild so not to judge age by size alone. New rescuees might appear younger because of size and weakened conditions.
How long do raccoons live?
Information on this is not consistent. Depending on the sources, raccoons average life-span in the wild is anywhere from 5 to 8 years while it ranges from 8 to 13 years for captive raccoons. Reportedly, there have been cases of raccoons living up to 16 years in the wild and 21 in captivity. In the wild, the greatest mortality occurs during the first 2 years of life - the principal causes of which are man (hunting, trapping, cars, dogs). In captivity, I would imagine the greatest mortality would also have to occur during the first 2 years of life - with the principal causes again being man (ignorance as to nutrition needs and proper raising of infant raccoons, failure to provide vet care necessary for captive wildlife, dumping a "pet" raccoon into the wild when it becomes too wild to handle). Natural predators are cougars, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, and alligators, with younger raccoons also falling prey to foxes and great horned owls. Malnutrition and disease (particularly distemper) also contribute to the mortality rate. But all are insignificant compared to the number of deaths caused by man. ("We're Number One" - not something to be proud of is it?!)
Where do raccoons live (their habitat)?
In the wild, raccoons are found across most of North America. They inhabit wetlands, plains and, primarily, forests. However, as civilization moves in on them and destroys their habitats, raccoons adapt quite well to living in urban areas and are among the most common wildlife species found in cities and towns. Their ideal habitat would be heavily wooded areas with a mixture of evergreen and hardwood trees in various stages of growth, with rivers, streams or lakes. Bottomland hardwoods provide hard mast, insects, and aquatic animal life. Fields and open areas yield fruit, berries, insects, and occasional small mammals and reptiles. Raccoons depend on wetland and aquatic habitats for a large portion of their food (frogs, crayfish, turtles and insects that live in the water) and are seldom found far from water. Raccoons sometimes prey upon the nests of ground-nesting birds such as ducks and pheasants, and on the nests of cavity nesting birds such as bluebirds. However, predation is among the checks and balances of nature. (Just like raptors and certain larger carnivores prey on young raccoons.) Severe predation is usually a symptom of other problems, such as a lack of suitable nesting habitat. Tip: When you release raccoons, it is imperative to find a place where there is plenty of water, no hunting, and if the raccoons have not become totally self-sufficient, people willing to feed them (by replenishing feeding stations) until they can find their own food. I use crickets and minnows to help train my rehabs in hunting and fishing skills. And I have two female cockatiels either of which will inevitably lay a clutch of unfertile eggs sometime during the raccoon rehabs time with me. A delicacy for the raccoons, the eggs also helps prepare them for the day they will be on their own. My raccoons spend time in the woods around my home becoming self-sufficient prior to their final release.
Raccoons do not construct their own den sites, but rely on natural processes or the work of other animals. Raccoons usually den in hollow trees, rock crevices, and ground dens. Both ground dens and cavity trees are used for shelter and escape, but den trees are preferred for raising young. Active den trees can be identified by claw marks or worn bark. Dens are usually located just below or within the tree canopy. Preferred cavities have 4 to 10 inch openings, are at least 15 feet from the ground, and are sheltered from rain and prevailing winds. Suitable ground dens include abandoned buildings, car bodies, wood or brush piles, hay stacks, rock crevices, and abandoned dens or burrows of badgers, beavers, coyotes, woodchucks or foxes. Both ground dens and cavity trees are used for shelter and escape. Tip: You can help wild raccoons by preserving cavity trees and other suitable den sites. Your attic is NOT a suitable den site and is discussed further below.
What do raccoons eat?
EVERYTHING! Raccoon are omnivorous and opportunistic carnivores. In spring they eat primarily animal matter such as: crayfish, fish, arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, a few small mammals and rodents, birds, and eggs. In the summer and fall they eat large amounts of grains, acorns, other nuts, and fruits. In the winter, they live off their fat store as well as carion, an occasional small mammal or rodent and sometimes even bark . Foraging occurs in all saline and freshwater riparian habitats, shallow water, vegetation, and on the ground. Agricultural and urban areas are also common foraging areas. Corn and grapes are among their favorite fruit and vegatable agricultural crops and garbage pails and outside pet dishes are among their favorite urban dining spots. When living adjacent to saltwater habitats, they feed on oysters and other saltwater foods, and may fish for crabs by dropping their tail in the water and jumping forward when the crab catches hold.
What can you tell me about raccoon reproduction?
Only what I have read, I have not witnessed it first hand. Raccoons are most active at night and their nightly travels depend upon where food is availabile and the prevailing weather conditions. The home range of an adult male is about one mile in diameter, although it expands in size during the breeding season. Adult females and their young inhabit smaller areas, and one male's home range often overlaps several females' home ranges. A raccoon uses several dens within its home range. Adult males tend to be solitary, but family groups are quite social and will feed and den together into the fall. As family units disband, raccoons become increasingly solitary but they will use communal or group dens during winter storms. In northern areas, babies will stay with the mother close to a year until she is ready to breed again. In southern areas, the young may go off on their own in the fall, but, after dispersal, will often reunite as a family from time to time in denning and feeding situations.
Raccoons can breed anytime from December to June, depending on climate and environmental conditions, although most breeding occurs between January and March, reaching a peak in February. In climates like Florida, breeding can take place any time during the year (as evidenced by "The 3 Babies"). Raccoons pair only to mate and do not form long-term bonds. The females ovulate spontaneously and give birth to one litter a year. Males will mate with more than one female and do not share in the rearing of young. Gestation lasts about nine weeks with most babies born in April or May. While males and females can begin breeding as early as the first year, males do not usually breed until the second year because of competition from older males. Breeding by adult females is relatively constant from year to year, while breeding by yearling females can be quite variable depending upon the geographic area and conditions. If the adult female does not become pregnant during the first estrus, she can come into estrus again four months later. This is where the late babies come in. Litter sizes can range from 1 to 8, with an average of 3 or 4 per litter. Yearling female raccoons tend to have smaller litters than do older adult females. Check out my page Raccoon Skeleton & Anatomy for some interesting info and pictures on raccoon reproductive system.
What can you tell me about raccoon babies?
The kits or cubs (whichever term you prefer, since it seems nobody can agree on one) are born very lightly furred, with a faint mask. They typically weigh three to five ounces and 4-6 inches long with 2-2 1/4" tail. Pigmented tail rings will either be present or will appear at about one week of age. Their eyes are closed and so are their ears (ear are pressed tightly forward to the head.) The head seems large in comparison to the rest of the body. When hungry, cold, or not in contact with another warm body, the babies will start chattering, whine or twitter like birds. They can crawl in a spider-like fashion with all four legs in extension, but cannot climb or stand and support their full weight. The eyes open at about two to three weeks, the ears shortly thereafter. They now average 7-10" long. They will be VERY vocal at this age. They will churr, growl, hiss, and give an alarm snort. By 4 weeks they are about 12-13" long. When five to six weeks old, most can walk, run, and climb very well. Seven-week-old babies will engage in active (and sometimes rough) fighting characterized by growling, squealing, biting, wrestling, and imitating adult defense postures. They remain in their birth den until they are about seven or eight weeks old, at which point their mother moves them to a series of alternate dens. After about eight to nine weeks of age they begin eating solid foods in the wild and by 10 weeks they are traveling with their mother. By four months old, they will be completely weaned and somewhat independent. Raccoon mothers with babies enjoy a privileged position in the raccoon hierarchy for as long as the babies remain with the mother. Other raccoons will defer to a female with babies in feeding situations. For rehabbers, the appropriate age for releasing hand-raised baby raccoons back into the wild is 16 to 24 weeks. This of course would be subject to the season of the year and the readiness of the animal. I prefer to wait until they are at least 20 weeks. Please see my Raccoon Rehab Info page for more info about caring for baby raccoons and preparing them for their eventual release back into the wild.
What do I do if raccoons are living in my attic (or chimney)?
Avoid a direct confrontation - a raccoon is not normally an aggressive animal but if it feels threatened (or is a female with babies) it is quite capable of defending itself and inflicting severe damage on its opponent. Just chasing the animal out somehow and then sealing off the entry point will, almost always, not work because the raccoon will return and force its way back in again. At this point, it will cause more damage than it did before.. You need to convince the raccoon that this is not a place it wants to be. Before doing that however, make sure that it is not a female raccoon with her babies. Depending upon your area, March through June is usually baby time, unless you live in Florida like me, then it can be year round. If there are babies, just wait. Once they are big enough (eight to nine weeks old), mama coon WILL move them on her own.
Once you are positive there are no young present, you can begin eviction proceedings. My pages at Help! Raccoons in my Attic and Help! Raccoons in my Chimney offers humane eviction advice and tips on preventing raccoons from returning without exterminating them.
How do I raccoon-proof my home or garbage?
Raccoon-proof your home. Cover up potential entrances, such as uncapped chimneys, loose shingles and openings in attics, roofs and eaves. If you're not sure where raccoons are getting in, sprinkle flour around potential entrances and check for footprints later. You can also stuff a rag or ball of paper in a suspect hole and check later to see if it has been removed. Make a raccoon den unlivable. Sprinkle naphtha flakes or predator urine around the area or hang ammonia-soaked cotton rags near the entrance and keep the area brightly lit. Raccoons dislike loud noises, bright lights and strong smells. Use the same methods in your garden or in the area where you keep your garbage or composter. Always cover composters and garbage cans. Use a bungie cord or a heavy weight to keep the lid in place. Make sure that all raccoons or other animals have left before sealing up holes in any part of a building. This is especially important during the season when there may be young (usually March through June, depending on the locale). Block the entrances to a raccoon den once you're sure all the animals have left. You can use sheet metal. Repair siding and holes in buildings, and use heavy rustproof screening to cover open air vents or chimneys. Trim all overhanging tree branches or any other structure that animals might use to get on to the roof of a residence or detached building. For more information about raccoons in your home, chimney, yard or garbage, check out my page Racccoons - Dealing with Pest Problems.
What is raccoon roundworm and how can I prevent it?
Raccoons are the normal host for the parasitic roundworm known as Baylisascaris procyonis. This roundworm is zoonotic, meaning it can pass from animal to animal (or human). It can cause a very rare disease called visceral larva migrans in humans and other animals. (Visceral larva migrans and ocular larva migrans in humans (and other animals) can also be caused by feces of other animals - most notably pet dogs and cats.) The disease is spread through the eggs contained in the feces of an infected raccoon. If ingested by an abnormal host (an animal other than a raccoon), it undergoes an aberrant migration through the body. The eggs hatch, and the larvae migrate to the brain, eyes and other organs. This condition can cause death or paralysis depending on the location in the body and number of worms. Prevention consists of never touching or inhaling raccoon feces, using rubber gloves and a mask when cleaning cages (or attics, etc.) which have been occupied by raccoons, burying or burning all feces, keeping children and pets away from raccoon cages and enclosures, and disinfecting cages and enclosures between litters. All cages and nest boxes used for housing raccoons should not be used for any other animals. They should remain strictly for raccoon use. Do frequent fecal screens on all raccoons in your possession. If positive, your wildlife vet may recommend treatment with Panacur at .1 cc per pound of body weight each week until release. Remember that raccoons may have fecal matter on their paws and bodies and take appropriate safeguards. As a precaution, all my raccoons when taken into rehab receive de-worming under our vet's supervision. For in-depth information, check out my page Raccoon Roundworm.
What is raccoon rabies and what should I know about it?
Raccoon rabies is a strain of rabies carried mainly by raccoons. Raccoon rabies is rabies. It can be spread to farm animals, pets and people through the saliva of an infected animal in the same ways as other strains of rabies. Raccoon rabies kills raccoons, other animals and humans in the same way as other strains of rabies do. The only difference is that it is spread primarily by raccoons. As of today, no human has died from the raccoon strain of rabies. Whether this remains true tomorrow, next month, next year, who knows. Education, and not blind panic, is the key to control and prevention of the spread of rabies. Do not assume that every raccoon you see is rabid; the majority killed for rabies testing are found to not have the disease. Do not assume that a raccoon out in the daytime is rabid; many raccoons, particularly nursing females, prefer to forage during the day. Do learn to recognize the signs and symtoms of rabies. Do learn how to minimize the risks to you, your family, your pets and innocent wildlife. Do read my Raccoon Rabies Info page. PLEASE.
In the meantime, check out my other Raccoon Facts & Info pages.
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