This information is intended for novice raccoon rehabbers. Everyone reading this should first be familiar with rabies, the raccoon rabies varient, and the precautions needed to prevent exposure to a possibly infected raccoon. If you have not done so yet, you are urged to read the information contained in my RABIES page.
Raccoon 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 20-24 weeks. At this age they are still young enough that there instincts take over and they become truly wild following their release.
Feeding baby raccoons
DON'T GIVE THEM MILK! They should be on kitten milk replacement
formula. (You can substitute baby formula or even condensed milk in an
emergency only situtation but NEVER regular milk!) If they are dehydrated when you get them, feed a rehydrating formula for the first 2-3 feedings and ease slowly into regular formula. Formula should be heated to body temperature before feeding (100-102F). You should be
feeding them 5 times a day (that includes in the middle of the night) for the first four weeks. Use an eyedropper (a bulb syringe really - you can pick it up at
any vet's office or some pet stores) if they don't take to the bottle
yet (animal nurser bottle, 4 ounce size, available at pet shop or a baby bottle with preemie nipple). Don't
overfeed! Raccoons will overeat when nursing. If their little belly feels full, stop. It is better to feed
more often than to overfeed.
You should always feed them belly down, not on their backs. You may find that rubbing or scratching their necks helps to stimulate them to nurse. You may also have to burp them - just like you would a baby. You may have to manually stimulate them to eliminate for another few
weeks. Use a cotton ball dipped in warm water, gently swap genital area
from front to back.
At 4 weeks (about a week after their eyes open), they should probably be
up to taking at least 2 ounces or more from a bottle - start adding some
baby rice cereal into the formula, cut it down to 4 times a day. I like
to use iron fortified baby rice cereal with banannas. At six weeks I usually start adding a small amount of canned kitten food in with the formula.
Baby raccoons will nurse for approximately 8 weeks and you can wean them
off the bottle onto a gruel of formula, baby cereal, and canned kitten
food (I prefer Little Friskies Turkey for kittens). Gradually work them
up to dry dog kibble as the main staple, along with a variety of fruits,
vegetables and any of nature's yummies and yuckies (minnows, etc.).
Once they are fully weaned (approximately 8-10 weeks), you should gradually work up from a soft gruel to a high quality dry dog kibble as the main staple. To this, you can add whatever meals, snacks and treats you wish. What one raccoons loves another may turn his nose up at. Carrot lovers are rare. Most will devour uncooked corn on the cob (and have a ball shucking it themselves) but this is not advisable if you will be releasing them in an area near corn farms. Same goes for watermelons. All my raccoons loved dog biscuits and grapes and they can be very useful as bribes. (You may have to initially cut the grapes in half until the raccoons discover what they are.) Raccoons have a sweet-tooth and, while I have never given mine any, I understand they love marshmallows. Use any sweets sparingly. I sometimes give them dry cat food for a change. I buy minnows and crickets at the bait shop and the raccoons enjoy fishing and hunting for them. This teaches them invaluable skills they will need in the wild. They also enjoy digging for grubs and other tidbits and the nuts and berries that our trees put forth. Basically, a raccoon will put ANYTHING it finds into its mouth. If it tastes good to him, he eats it.
Potty training raccoons/raccoon roundworm
Once a raccoon can walk, he is old enough to start training him to a litter-box. If you use a water bowl instead of a water bottle, the raccoon will eliminate in the water bowl. He will then proceed to "wash" his food in that same water. Get rid of the water bowl. Place a litter box in the raccoon enclosure. If you are still in the weaning to solid food process, place a small tin with kitty litter next to the feeding area. If the raccoon starts to eliminate, immediately place him in the litter. This will help speed up the process and keep him from using his food bowl as a toilet. Raccoons will share a litterbox. Unlike cats, they do not bury their feces. And they think nothing of knocking the litter box over just for the fun of it. I weigh it down with a piece of concrete under the litter.
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. 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 more in-depth information, please see my page on Raccoon Roundworm.
Housing young raccoons
Make sure that they are warm enough. If necessary, a
heating pad wrapped in towels (if your towels have loops use a
pillowcase over them) may be used at this age but be careful. There is a non-electric heating pad marketed by SnuggleSoft that you just heat in the microwave for around four minutes and, slipped under the bedding, provides up to 12 hours of safe, gentle, warmth.
Newborn to five week old raccoons can be housed in a cardboard box or, better yet, a small animal carrier. It will be warmer for them and easier for you.
Raccoons will curl together into one furry lump for sleeping. If your raccoon does not have littermates, provide a suitable stuffed toy as a substitute. As raccoons grow, so must their enclosure but always keep a bed (den) area in it. Cardboard boxes sized to the raccoons work well for the bed for young raccoons - line bottom with towels for warmth. Juvenile raccoons will make short work of the cardbox box. At that age, I prefer to start using that small animal carrier as their bed. Depending upon the number of raccoons in the litter, you may need a small dog carrier. Remove the door from the carrier - (and any other removable pieces for that matter or the raccoons will do it for you) and place in in their enclosure. Clean and inspect the carrier daily. One advantage of using the carrier as their bed is that it makes it much easier when you must travel with the raccoons, either for vet visits or their final release into the wild. Since they feel secure in their "bed", car trips are a lot easier on everyone involved. Although I did have a litter once that "escaped" from the carrier while I was driving. Actually, it was a planned breakout - they couldn't push the door open but they managed to pull it in. I had to pull over to the side of the road while they had a ball exploring the car. Moral of story: to make sure they can't get the door open while you're travelling, tie it securely rather than just relying upon the built in locks. [top]
Housing juvenile raccoons
The type of outside enclosure you use for your raccoons will depend upon your rehabbing methods. Up to 4 raccoons can be placed in a cage measuring 24'X8'X8'. Cages measuring 6'X6'X12' long are also satisfactory. Wire should be 1"X2" welded wire. Fiberglass panels should be placed on the ends to protect them from the weather (Evans & Evans, 1985). Some rehabbers use a very large enclosure, complete with tree(s), child's wading pool, various climbing items and other toys, feeders, and wooden boxes for beds. They may have several litters together and the older ones help teach the younger ones numerous skills. Many raccoons will stay within this type of enclosure until their final release. They should be released in a area with feeders that are regularly restocked until you are sure they no longer need them. I use a smaller enclosure with just branches, toys, their food bowl, litter box and bed (animal carrier). All their other activity takes place in the woods themselves and I start taking them on daily excursions when they are about 10 weeks old.
Dealing with imprinting and other problems
While bottle feeding does make raccoons bond with you, when they are being
rehabbed with littermates they do not imprint as heavily on their human
surrogate mother as a single orphaned one would. As they grow, they will prefer the company of their littermates over you. If at all possible, try to never rehab a single raccoon. Contact another rehabber in your area and see if you can merge your rehabs once they have received clean bills of health for distemper and roundworm.
Physical affection should be lavished upon nursing raccoons. Once they are weaned, you need to start distancing yourself from them, to break the human bond. Also start limiting their human contact to just yourself.
As they get older they will get quite playful, which increases the chances of your being bit. Use precaution and heavy gloves and make it clear that they are not to rough house with you. Sharply say "NO" and growl or hiss at them. If they are by you at the time, gently shake the scuff of their neck while you do this. The scuff of the neck works well with raccoons - their moms carry them by it, shake them by it and will pin them down by it when they really tick mom off. You grab just skin and fur. They can't turn their head around enough to bite you and if you pick them up that way they usually just hang there quite docile (must be instinctive.) This should never be attempted with wild or adult raccoons but I find it quite effective while I am still their "mother". [top]
Preparing a raccoon for release At about 10 weeks of age, I start taking the raccoons for daily excursions. At this age they will follow me like little ducklings but as they get older the bravest of any litter can easily lead the others quickly astray - so be prepared. A wheel barrel filled with water is not only great fun for them play in but, when stocked with minnows, teaches them how to fish. Rumaging around in the leaves on the ground can yield all sorts of things to eat. I lead them to smaller isolated trees where they can be more easily retrieved or coaxed down with a bribe. The first couple of times, they may be a little leery and you might have to help them up and down. After that, they discover all the good things about trees (food, shelter, fun) and you'll find them making a run for the trees.
Then I start to let them out by themselves, gradually building up from a few hours each day, to half a day, to overnight for a day or more at a time. Each time they visit their food bowl less and less, sustaining themselves on nature's offerings instead, and it becomes harder and harder to coax them to me. And sometimes they start to turn almost nocturnal. It is then that I make the final catch and release them into non-hunting areas in the areas where they were born. I do leave food and check back but it is more for me than for them - they do not need my help anymore, they have successfully returned to the wild.
Tips for becoming a rehabber, links and more info will be posted shortly. Check back.