General: The common raccoon (Procyon lotor,) also referred to as the North American raccoon, is an opportunistic forager that is a common sighting in a vast array of habitats. This shy, nocturnal mammal is highly adaptable and has taken to living in close proximity to human populations. Native populations stretch across North America into northern South America and experience stable numbers and high success rates, earning them the distinction of ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List. Despite this success, raccoons are often thought of as pests because of their tendency to forage in trashcans and damage property.
Description: Raccoons can be easily recognized by their unique coloration and stocky, “well-rounded” build. Full grown, adults weigh an average of 14lbs. (and up to 24lbs.) and are 24” to 38” in length, with males reaching a mature size that is 10-30% greater than females. Raccoons, especially in northern environments or in preparation for winter, may develop a body mass that is up to 50% fat. Coloration may vary geographically, but their bodies are often grey, brown, buff, or reddish-brown, accented with black. Their fur is thick and long and is often a mottled combination of colors with a light base. Raccoons are best known for their signature black “masks” on their faces, accented by white fur around the nose, and bushy tails marked with 4 to 10 black rings. Their tails make-up about 45% of their overall body length and are used to store fat and balance. Juveniles have similar coloration to adults but are darker overall.
Raccoons have extremely dexterous paws that are similar in appearance to a human hand, creating tracks that resemble handprints. Their black paws have five toes that are sensitive, flexible and nimble, allowing raccoons to grasp, hold, climb and manipulate objects. Agile climbers, raccoons are capable of moving forward, backward, up and down trees (able to descend trees headfirst, unlike most climbers) and are able to survive a 35’ to 40’ fall. They generally walk or shuffle and are able to run as fast as 15 mph, although they only travel out of necessity for food or safety. Raccoons are also adept at swimming but because of their lack of waterproof fur, they only enter the water when necessary1.
In addition to a highly developed tactile sense, raccoons also have an acute sense of hearing and highly developed night vision. They are capable of making a variety of sounds, including purrs, snarls, whinnies, screams, growls, hisses, and whimpers. Raccoons can become quite aggressive when they or their young are threatened and are capable of killing a dog2.
While raccoons do not formally hibernate, they do become inactive for long periods of time, especially in northern climates. Raccoons sleep during these times and are able to maintain stable metabolic rates and body temperatures. Prior to this extended period, raccoons gorge themselves to increase their body fat and by the time they emerge can loose up to 50% of their total body weight3.
Raccoons may live up to 16 years in the wild, although most don’t make it past their second year of life. On average, raccoons live 5 years in the wild. There was one recorded instance of a raccoon reaching 21 years of age in captivity4.
Raccoons are susceptible to a number of diseases, some of which may affect people and pets. One common ailment is canine distemper, causing confusion, loss of coordination, and eventually death in raccoons. Canine distemper cannot be transmitted to immunized pets or people. The disease most associated with raccoons is the rabies virus. Symptoms can be similar to distemper, but may include aggressiveness, excessive salivating, and paralyzed hind legs. This disease can be transmitted to other animals and people. Raccoons commonly become infected with roundworms, although they typically do not experience any side effects. Unfortunately, infected raccoons excrete roundworm eggs, which can cause nerve damage if they are ingested by another animal and hatch. There are two known cases of human fatalities in New York State, which resulted from accidental infection of roundworms by a captive animal5.
Habitat: Raccoons are a highly adaptable animal and can be found in a variety of habitats, such as woodlands, farmlands, cities and suburbs, marshes, flood plains, and prairies. Despite this broad range, raccoons almost always locate their habitat near a source of water and prefer to reside in moist environments. Because of their adaptability and varied food preferences, raccoons are able to live within close proximity to humans.
They often build their dens in trees, but may also locate them in caves, buildings, homes or garages, rain sewers, or abandoned animal burrows.
Geographic ranges are generally .5 to 2 miles in diameter but may be as large as 6 miles in diameter and are typically not exclusive. Populations tend to be denser in cities rather than the wild.
Raccoons are at risk of predation by foxes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, eagles, snakes (which prey on the young,) and owls but are most often killed by vehicles.
There are six species of raccoons, beside for Procyon lotor, that live almost primarily in tropical island habitats.
Location: Populations of the common northern raccoon may be found across the United States (except for some areas in the American southwest and the Rockies,) southern Canada, and northern South America. Populations have been introduced to parts of Asia and Europe and have experienced high survival and success rates.
Diet: Raccoons are omnivores that use their front paws and nimble fingers to forage for a variety of foods at night on land and in the water. Their diets include crayfish, frogs, turtles and turtle eggs, salamanders, fish, clams, worms, mice, insects (such as grasshoppers, crickets, and wasps,) voles, nestlings and bird eggs, and squirrels. Their diets also include vegetation, nuts, berries, fruits, and farm crops. These opportunistic feeders are best known for their tendency to steal garbage, food scraps and pet food, and have been known to dine on road kill; however, despite commonly being sighted at garbage cans, invertebrates make up the majority of raccoons’ diets.
Raccoons are commonly associated with “washing” their food (their name derived from the latin for “the washing bear.” 6) Despite popular belief, raccoons do not wash their food and don’t require the extra moisture for digestion. Scientists now believe raccoons use moisture to activate sensitive nerves on the hairless areas of their front paws in order to improve their tactile sense and more accurately identify the item they are about to consume.
Reproduction: Raccoons typically breed once a year, with mating taking place between February and June (the highest frequency of mating occurring in March.) Populations living in southern habitats tend to breed later than those in northern habitats. During the mating season male raccoons often expand their ranges to increase their exposure to females and females begin looking for dens. Female raccoons have been known to temporarily reside with their mates in the males’ dens until breeding has occurred. Males may remain with females for a brief period of time (up to a month before breeding up until the birth of the young) but do not remain to assist in post-natal care.
Raccoons are opportunistic when selecting sites for their dens, using tree or rock cavities, logs, attics, caves, or abandoned burrows.
The gestational period lasts for approximately 65 days and litters containing an average of 4 young are born between April and May (although litters may contain 1 to 7 young.) The young, also referred to as kits, are born blind and helpless, weighing under 3oz., and are cared for exclusively by their mothers. The kits open their eyes after 3 weeks and are able to stand between 4 to 6 weeks old. They use a variety of sounds to communicate with their mother, including mews, cries, and twitters. The young are weaned after 8 to 9 weeks at which point they begin following their mother out of the den to learn to hunt and climb. During this time their mother is extremely protective of her young and will aggressively defend them from predators. Outside of this maternal relationship, raccoons are generally solitary animals. A mother may be spotted protectively carrying her young by the scruff of their neck. By 5 months old, the kits regularly hunt alongside their mothers at night. They remain with their mothers through their first winter and then establish their own dens, often in close proximity to their birth den, when they are approximately10 months old.
Female raccoons reach sexual maturity before 12 months of age, while males require 24 months to become fully mature7.
Notes of Interest: The majority of raccoon populations have continued to grow and have experienced extreme success and stability due to their highly adaptable nature. However, some isolated populations living in tropical island habitats are experiencing declining numbers8.
Historically, raccoon pelts were valued in the fur industry. “Coon” coats were fashionable in the 1920’s, when a single pelt went for $14 (equivalent to $185.00 today.) Today, raccoon pelts are less desirable but are sometimes sold as imitation mink, seal or otter9.
Keeping a raccoon as a domestic pet is an illegal practice in most states and requires the proper license in other states. Yet, some people still choose to do so. Before making the decision to keep a raccoon as a pet, consider how their characteristics would fit into your life: they are nocturnal and are often not awake during the day, they are shy and tend to keep their distance from humans, they can become extremely aggressive when cornered and they may carry rabies, among other diseases. Raccoons can also cause major destruction to property.
How can you prevent raccoons from frequenting your property?
Store any pet food that’s outside in containers with tight-fitting lids. Avoid feeding pets outside. If pets must be fed outside, don’t leave excess food in the dishes and keep dishes in well-lit, enclosed areas, if possible.
Keep garbage in metal cans with tight-fitting lids and, if possible, in well-lit areas near activity. If problems persist, strap the lid down or suspend the cans off the ground.
Enclose gardens, if necessary, with an electric fence.
Fill any openings in your home where raccoons can enter. Keep in mind that raccoons can get through very small spaces. However, before you permanently fill the hole, place a temporary cover or test such as twigs, leaves or flour in the hole and watch for disturbances. This will verify whether raccoons are entering and exiting through that location. Also be sure there has been no den built in your home or structure. If there is evidence of a den, contact an animal control specialist10.