Introduction to Raccoon

Raccoon, a small, furred animal found in the Western Hemisphere from southern Canada to Paraguay. A raccoon can be recognized by its ringed tail and the black "mask" on its fox-like face. The playful, cunning common raccoon of North America figures in many of the folk tales of the southern United States. It shows little fear of humans, and the young are often caught and reared as pets.

RaccoonsRaccoons often dip food into water before eating it.

The common raccoon ranges probably no farther south than Panama. It may be from 25 to 35 inches (64 to 89 cm) long and weigh more than 40 pounds (18 kg). Its fur has long, coarse, black-tipped guard hairs, ranging from light to dark gray. The under-fur is yellowish brown. There are black rings around the animal's eyes, and its muzzle is white. The short bushy tail is gray or yellowish with a black tip, and is circled by several black rings.

Do Raccoons Wear Masks?

Raccoons don’t wear masks, but it sure looks as if they do. Raccoons have wide patches of black fur around their eyes and across their cheeks. This striking pattern looks just like a bandit’s black mask.

A raccoon has other markings that make it easy to identify, too. Its long, bushy tail has 5 to 10 black rings around it. The tip of the tail is dark in color. Like a grizzly bear’s fur, a raccoon’s fur is grizzled, or streaked with gray. It also has flecks of yellow or brown in it. Raccoon fur is long and coarse. Thick fur makes a raccoon look bigger than it really is.

Common raccoons live in hollow trees or rocky dens, often near water. In colder areas they live in burrows. Raccoons usually come out only at night to look for food. They are often a pest to farmers and gardeners because they eat poultry, grain, and fruit; but they often help the farmer by ridding the farm of rats and mice. They also feed on fish, shellfish, crayfish, frogs, turtles, and salamanders. Before eating they often hold the food in their long-fingered paws and dip it into the water several times. Raccoons are excellent swimmers.

A raccoon gives birth to a litter of three to six young in the spring. The young are born blind, but open their eyes in about three weeks. When they are about two months old, the mother takes them with her on her nightly rambles. Raccoons reach full growth in about a year and may live to be 10 or 12 years old.

In the southern United States raccoons are hunted for food and for sport. In their northern range raccoons have long, thick fur that is valued for coats and trimming. The fur is usually sheared. Unsheared raccoon coats were popular in the United States in the 1920's. American pioneers wore "coon-skin" jackets and caps. The caps were fashioned with the animal's tail hanging down in the back.

Who Are Enemies of Raccoons?

Like most animals living in the wild, raccoons have many enemies. Their enemies include cougars, jaguars, coyotes, foxes, and some kinds of owls. But their worst enemies of all are humans and dogs.

Adult raccoons can be ferocious when they are cornered. They have sharp teeth, which they use to defend themselves. They are quite capable of putting up a good fight. And their thick fur helps protect them against bites and other types of attacks.

Raccoons are quick runners, but they are not always fast enough to flee from large enemies. But with their sharp claws, raccoons are good tree climbers. If they see or smell an enemy, they can escape by scampering up a tree.

The crab-eating raccoon of South America is dark red, but it is marked like the North American raccoon. It has the typical black mask, white muzzle, and black-and-white ringed tail. It is found chiefly in the Amazon River basin, but ranges from Venezuela to Paraguay.

Do Crab-Eating Raccoons Eat Only Crabs?

No, but crabs are a favorite food of crab-eating raccoons. Besides crabs, these raccoons eat crayfish, frogs, and other freshwater animals. But, like their northern cousins, they’ll eat just about anything if they get hungry enough.

Although crab-eating raccoons and northern raccoons are a lot alike, there are differences between them. Crab-eating raccoons are semiaquatic (sehm ee uh KWAT ihk). This means that they spend much of their time in the water. Crab-eating raccoons also have thinner fur. This makes them appear more slender. And their tails are less bushy.

Crab-eating raccoons have stronger claws than northern raccoons do. They also have stronger molars, or teeth used for grinding. This may be nature’s way of helping crab-eating raccoons crack the crabs and other shellfish they love to eat.

Among close relatives of the raccoon are the ring-tailed cat of the southwestern United States and Mexico, the coati of Mexico and South America, and the kinkajou of tropical South America.

Where Do Raccoons Live?

There are two main species, or kinds, of raccoons. One is the northern raccoon. The other is the crab-eating raccoon. The northern raccoon lives in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The crab-eating raccoon lives in parts of Central and South America and on some nearby islands.

Some other species of raccoons live on tropical islands in the Americas. For example, the Cozumel (KAHZ uh muhl) Island raccoon lives on the Mexican island of Cozumel.

All other raccoon relatives, except for the red panda, also live in the Americas. The red panda lives in Asia.

About 60 years ago, people took raccoons to Europe and Asia to keep in zoos or on preserves. They also bred raccoons for their fur. Some of the animals were released. Others escaped. As a result, raccoons can now also be found in very small areas in Europe and Asia.

Where Is a Raccoon’s Home?

A raccoon’s home, or den, can be almost anywhere. Raccoons don’t usually build their own dens, however. They look for empty places to hide away—and just move right in.

Raccoons that live in forests look for hollow spaces in tree trunks. If there is a pond or a stream nearby, so much the better. But not all raccoons are so lucky. Forests have been cleared in many places. Houses have replaced trees. So what can raccoons do? They move into open attics, basements, sewer drains, and garages. On farms, raccoons move into sheds and barns.

When a raccoon does find a den, it doesn’t live there for very long. It may stay for a few days. Then it goes off to search for food. The raccoon may return to its home. But more likely, it will find another hideaway.

What’s Under a Raccoon’s Fur?

A raccoon’s head is shaped like that of a fox. It is wide at the forehead and narrows to a pointed snout. A raccoon has 40 teeth—including four long, sharp canines.

A raccoon’s legs are fairly long for its body size. Each foot has five toes. The toes are so long that they are often called fingers. At the end of each finger is a long, sharp claw. A raccoon walks on the soles of its feet, just as a bear does.

All raccoons share similar features, but they’re not all the same size. Northern raccoons are the biggest raccoons. They are about 24 to 42 inches (61 to 107 centimeters) long and weigh from 8 to 20 pounds (3.6 to 9 kilograms). Male raccoons are usually bigger than females.

What’s Special About a Raccoon’s “Hands”?

A raccoon’s fingers are long and flexible. The fingers are also spaced far apart. With “hands” like these, a raccoon can hold things almost as well as a monkey can.

A raccoon’s hands are seldom still. The raccoon uses the fingers of its forepaws to feel around. As it feels around, it sometimes finds food. That’s how a raccoon can catch fish without even looking. A raccoon often stares straight ahead as it puts its hands into the water. It holds its hands there until it feels something move. Then the raccoon grabs its catch and brings it to its nose. After a quick smell, the raccoon pops its catch into its mouth.

At the end of a raccoon’s fingers are strong claws. These help the raccoon grasp or climb just about anything, from a garbage can to a tree. This climbing ability comes in handy when the raccoon wants to find food or escape from enemies.

Habits

Are Raccoons Fussy Eaters?

Not at all! Raccoons are happy to dine on a wide variety of foods. Although they are carnivores, they will eat plants as well as meat. In fact, they will eat just about anything they can find.

While raccoons are not fussy eaters, they find their favorite foods in or near the water. Raccoons love fish, crayfish, crabs, frogs, and other freshwater animals. But they also like fruits, nuts, seeds, bird eggs, grasshoppers, and small animals such as mice.

Raccoons are also scavengers. That means that they will eat what humans or other animals leave behind.

Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

No, probably not. But raccoons do have an unusual habit. They often dunk food into water before eating it.

The scientific name for the northern raccoon is procyon lotor (PROH see ahn LOH tuhr), which means “washing bear.” It is easy to see how the raccoon got this name. A raccoon’s fur looks a lot like that of a grizzly bear, and a raccoon often seems to wash its food.

Scientists once wondered if raccoons really washed their food. So they watched raccoons in captivity. The animals did dunk their food into water—if there was water around. But even if there was no water, the animals still went through the same dunking motions. The scientists concluded that the raccoons were just imitating something they did in the wild when they fished for food.

What Do Raccoons Do at Night?

Raccoons are mostly nocturnal (nahk TUR nuhl), or active at night. Usually, they sleep during the day and then go out at night in search of food.

Most often, raccoons leave their dens soon after sunset. They head straight for the nearest food source. Ponds, rivers, and lakes supply their favorite meals. Farm fields offer corn and other vegetables. Garbage cans in areas where people live provide tasty surprises.

At sunrise, tired raccoons find dens to snuggle up in for a long day’s rest. However, sometimes raccoons also hunt for food during the day.

Do Raccoons Hibernate in Winter?

Raccoons do not really hibernate. Animals that hibernate go into a deep sleep that can last for most of the winter. Their heart rates slow down, and their body temperatures drop.

While raccoons don’t hibernate, those that live in cold climates sleep for long periods of time during winter. They may stay in their dens for several weeks at a time. But on mild days, these raccoons often wake up. They go out in search of food. Once the weather gets cold again, they return to their dens and go back to sleep.

During their long periods of sleep, raccoons do not eat. Without food, they can lose up to one-half of their total weight! To prepare for these difficult times, raccoons eat more than usual in late summer and fall. This adds more and more fat to their bodies. Raccoons rely on this fat to survive cold winters.

Are Raccoons Loners?

Most raccoons are loners. They spend a lot of time alone—especially if they are males.

A male raccoon lives in a den with a female only during mating season. The male leaves the den long before the baby raccoons are born.

Of course, a mother raccoon must stay with her babies, or cubs. As mammals, the cubs need to be nursed. Cubs usually stay with their mother until the end of their first winter. After they leave, she will be alone until she mates and gives birth to a new family.

During a harsh winter, a group of raccoons may band together. This group can consist of many females, but only one male. The group may share a den during the winter. But once spring arrives, most go their separate ways.

How Does a Mother Raccoon Care for Her Cubs?

A female raccoon can give birth to up to eight babies at once, usually in the spring. Before the babies are born, the expectant mother looks for a den high off the ground where she will give birth. An elevated den helps protect the cubs from many kinds of enemies.

Newborn cubs are both blind and deaf. They weigh about 2 1/2 ounces (71 grams) and are about 6 1/2 inches (16.5 centimeters) long. Their tails make up about one-third of their length.

The small and helpless cubs depend on their mother for food and protection. A mother raccoon cares for her cubs by nursing them with her milk. Her milk helps the cubs grow stronger. A mother raccoon also cares for her young just by lying with them. As the cubs snuggle up to her, her body gives off heat that helps keep them warm.

How Do Cubs Become Adults?

By the time the cubs are 5 to 9 weeks old, they are ready to explore areas outside their den. So the mother then moves them to a den closer to the ground. When they are about 8 to 11 weeks old, she takes them with her to search for food. By 16 weeks, the cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk. From this point on, the cubs must find their own food.

Most raccoon cubs spend their first winter sharing a den with their mother. But by spring, all offspring set off on their own.

The first order of business for the young raccoons is to find their own territory. By the end of their first year, they will be able to mate and have cubs. In the wild, raccoons can live to be about 5 years old.

Do Raccoons Travel Much?

Yes, they do. How far raccoons travel depends on several things. They move around looking for food, water, and dens. If these things are close by, raccoons don’t need to roam very far.

Both male and female raccoons form territories. A male raccoon does this by rubbing against a tree or a rock. Doing this leaves a scent that warns other males to stay away.

A male raccoon usually keeps a territory to himself, but sometimes females may share part of it with him. A male’s territory covers about 100 to 250 acres (40 to 100 hectares). However, a male may roam as far as 10 miles (16 kilometers) to get food or to find a mate.

A female raccoon usually has a much smaller territory. Since she is often caring for a family, she is less able to travel. A mother raccoon must stay put in one den until her young are ready to explore outside the den.

Raccoon Cousins

You may have seen raccoons in your own backyard. But do you know what cacomistles (KAK uh mihs uhlz) are? How about coatis (koh AH teez) or kinkajous (KINK kuh jooz)?

One type of raccoon is the northern raccoon. It belongs to a family of animals called procyonids (proh SY uh nihdz). Cacomistles, coatis, and kinkajous are also in this family. So are ringtails and red pandas.

Raccoons and their relatives are carnivores (KAHR nuh vawrz), or meat eaters. Carnivores have large canine teeth and four or five toes on each foot. Cats, dogs, and bears are other examples of carnivores. Raccoons and their relatives are also mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded animals that have hair or fur on their bodies. And mammal mothers nurse their young using their own milk.

Are Ringtails Raccoons, Too?

Ringtails are not raccoons, but they are close relatives. Like raccoons, they have long, bushy tails. But ringtails have more rings on their tails than most raccoons do. Ringtails usually have 16 to 18 black-and-white rings on their tails.

Ringtails also have rings around their eyes. Their eyes are large and dark. They are outlined by black hairs that are, in turn, surrounded by large white rings of hair.

Ringtails live mostly on rocky plateaus that have at least a few trees and a source of water. These animals are very excellent climbers. They can climb up canyon walls and over rocky ledges. They can even climb up narrow crevices in rock formations. How can ringtails do this? They put all their feet on one wall and press their backs against the other wall.

How Is a Ringtail Like a Cat?

A ringtail is about the same size as a housecat. It walks like a cat, too. While it may look as if a cat’s whole foot touches the ground when it’s walking, the cat is really walking only on its toes. The ringtail walks on its toes, too. The ringtail is the only raccoon relative that walks this way. The North American ringtail also has claws that can be drawn partly back into its paws—just as a cat’s claws can be.

The grooming habits of a ringtail are also like those of a cat. Both animals lick their front paws. Then they use their damp paws to clean their ears, cheeks, and noses.

When it’s angry, a ringtail acts like a cat, too. It hisses and raises the fur on its tail, just as a cat does. A ringtail has so much in common with a cat, it’s easy to see why it’s sometimes called a ringtail cat.

Just What Is a Cacomistle?

A cacomistle is a close relative of the ringtail. But instead of living in rocky areas as the ringtail does, the cacomistle lives in dense, moist forests. The cacomistle is arboreal (ahr BAWR ee uhl). That means that it spends much of its time living up in trees.

Both the ringtail and cacomistle have long, thin bodies with long, bushy tails. But there are ways to tell these two raccoon relatives apart. For example, a cacomistle doesn’t walk on its toes as a ringtail does. Rather, a cacomistle walks on the soles of its feet as other raccoon family members do. Usually, a cacomistle is slightly larger than a ringtail, too.

Which Raccoon Relative Is a Real Stinker?

That’s easy—the olingo (AHL ihn goh) is a stinker. The olingo may seem like a skunk in this respect, but it is a raccoon relative. In fact, the olingo looks a lot like a kinkajou. Both animals live in trees in tropical rain forests, too. They are even sometimes found living near one another. The easiest way to tell them apart is by their scents.

The olingo has a good reason to stink. It uses its smell to scare off its enemies. An olingo has a pair of scent glands near the base of its tail. When frightened or attacked, the olingo empties these glands. This releases a smell that is usually strong enough to make an enemy run away from the olingo as fast as it can.

The olingo has other good ways to protect itself, too. It can growl loudly, make shrill calls, and sound off with shrieking alarm sounds. It is also an excellent climber and jumper. It can quickly travel through tree branches to escape an attack.

Where Do Red Pandas Fit In?

Most scientists group red pandas with the raccoon family because these animals and raccoons have much in common. Like other raccoon relatives, red pandas have long, bushy tails and markings on the fur of their faces. And, like raccoons, they can hold objects with their front paws.

Red pandas may be raccoon relatives, but they live far away from the rest of this animal family! All other raccoon relatives live in North, Central, and South America, but red pandas live in Asia. They make their homes in bamboo forests high in the Himalaya (hihm uh LAY uh). There, they can find plenty of their favorite food—bamboo leaves.

Red pandas are also similar to giant pandas. Like red pandas, giant pandas live in Asia and eat bamboo. At one time, giant pandas were considered members of the raccoon family. Most scientists now classify giant pandas with bears. But some scientists believe red pandas and giant pandas should be classified together in their own group.

Does a Red Panda Have Thumbs?

A red panda does have thumbs. In fact, it has two thumbs on each forepaw. One thumb is a true thumb that is actually used like a finger. The other thumb is really a special bone on the wrist of each forepaw. This “false” thumb helps in climbing and grasping bamboo. This unusual bone is also found on the giant panda.

Bamboo is the red panda’s food of choice. The animal uses the extra thumb on each paw to hold onto the bamboo stems. The red panda enjoys other foods, too. It also feeds on fruits, berries, roots, lichens, insects, bird eggs, and small rodents.

The red panda is a good climber. It spends most of its day sleeping and resting on the branches of trees. It usually comes to the ground to search for food at dawn and dusk.

Do These Relatives Look a Lot Alike?

Raccoon relatives do look a lot alike. They are close in size and shape. Many have interesting markings on their faces. And, of course, they all have beautiful tails.

But just like any family, each member of this animal family stands out in its own way. Raccoons are known for their black masks and arched backs. The coati’s long nose is its special feature. The cacomistle has faint rings on its tail compared to the dark rings of its closest relative, the ringtail. The kinkajou is the only member of this family whose tail has no rings. The olingo looks as if it could be the kinkajou’s twin, except its tail has rings. And the red panda has ears outlined in white, a dark red coat, and the bushiest tail of all.

Are These Animals in Danger?

Many of these animals are in danger because they are losing their habitats. Cacomistles, olingos, and kinkajous all live in trees in forests. Red pandas depend on bamboo forests for their diet. If people continue to cut down these forests, these raccoon relatives will soon have nowhere left to live.

There is good news, though, for the red panda. The Chinese government has established preserves of bamboo-rich land to protect the red panda’s food source. More efforts like this are needed to ensure that the red panda and other raccoon relatives will be here for a long time to come.

While some raccoon relatives are in danger, others are thriving. Northern raccoons and other raccoons adapt well to their surroundings. These animals can live almost anywhere. Because of this, they continue to have a large population.

Raccoon Relative Fun Facts

The name raccoon comes from the Native American Algonquin language and means “he scratches with his hands.”

Ringtails were once called “miners’ cats.” They were kept in mines to kill rodents.

Coatis are also known as hog-nosed coons because of their long snouts.

Red pandas are also known as wahs, lesser pandas, Himalayan raccoons, and red cat bears.

In cold weather, ringtails may wrap their tails around their bodies to stay warm.

Another name for a kinkajou is a “honey bear.” This raccoon relative extends its long, thin tongue to extract honey from beehives.

The common raccoon is Procyon lotor; the crab-eating, P. cancrivorus. Raccoons belong to the family Procyonidae.