Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

Raccoon out for a stroll
Check out the forepaws on that curious raccoon. Alexander Spatari/Moment Open/Getty Images

If the McDonald's Hamburglar had a spirit animal, it would be the raccoon. This masked bandit of the animal world is notorious for its food thievery. Omnivorous raccoons eat plants and small animals, such as mice, and have adapted to living near humans. In the wild, they'll dine on plants, nuts and fruits; in urban areas, they'll sniff and steal food out of your garbage can, pilfer pet food and grab fish from backyard ponds. Have you ever taken the trash out at night, only to find it strewn across your yard the next morning? It could be the handiwork of nocturnal raccoons. In a study of corn crop plundering by wild animals, Purdue University researchers found that raccoons were responsible for 87 percent of the 73,000 damaged plants [source: MacGowan et al.].

What makes raccoons so good at snatching food? Check out their forepaws. Raccoons' forepaws, each with five fingers, are surprisingly dexterous. They can easily grasp, hold and manipulate objects in their forepaws, similar to primates. While raccoons' flexible forepaws help them with food procurement and tree climbing, the animals don't display any sort of traits related to tool use like primates. Nevertheless, raccoons' manual adroitness is so well-developed that scientists have conducted a surprising number of studies to determine how and why the trait exists.


One of the most puzzling things raccoons do with their nimble paws makes them seem like germophobes: Whenever they eat near a water source, apparently raccoons wash food by dunking it in water and rolling it around in their paws. In fact, their scientific name, Procyon lotor, literally means "washing bear." Yet food-washing isn't a natural habit among animals, which led researchers at the London Zoo in 1961 to look into whether these raccoons — known to carry rabies and roundworm — really are as sanitary as they act.

Raccoon Food-washing Habits: Making Mealtime a Tactile Experience

Raccoons Wash Food
If raccoons are near water, they'll dunk their food in it as though to wash it. Peter Weimann/Picture Press/Getty Images

In the London study that first examined raccoon food-washing habits, the 10 animals "washed" meat more often than plants, but didn't rinse off dirty earthworms [source: Lyall-Watson]. Even if no water was available, the captive raccoons would move their forepaws in the same way they would if they were actually dousing the food item. To the researchers, this behavior indicated that the raccoons weren't intentionally cleaning their food before eating.

But that doesn't mean it's a useless gesture — removing dirt from their meals is merely a beneficial byproduct of the action. Initially, scientists conjectured that raccoons lacked saliva glands and needed to add moisture, making it easier for them to eat [source: Zeveloff]. Instead, study results have indicated that the behavior enhances the tactile experience involved with eating.


As we mentioned, raccoons have highly dexterous forepaws that resemble hands. Raccoons actually have the same nerve grouping on the hairless parts of their forepaws as primates have, including humans, making them very sensitive to touch. Like primates, they have similar slowly adapting nerves in those hairless, or glabrous, patches [source: Rasmusson and Turnbull]. Slowly adapting nerves are responsive for both moving and stationary skin displacement, communicating to the brain, via the central nervous system, information about the weight, size, texture and temperature of whatever's come into contact with the forepaws. There are also nerves attached to underfur and longer guard hairs.

In a study examining the slowly adapting nerves in the forepaws of 136 raccoons, researchers found that wetting the skin increases the nerve responsiveness [source: Rasmusson and Turnbull]. Think about what happens when you look through a pair of sunglasses and then quickly take them off. When you remove them, your optical nerve responsiveness will likely increase because more light is flooding into your retinas to illuminate what you're looking at. Likewise, when raccoons perform their dunking ritual, the water on their paws could excite the nerves in their forepaws. That, in turn, gives them a more vivid tactile experience and provides precise information about what they're about to eat. This is a beneficial trait since the raccoon's vision isn't its keenest sense.

Like primates, raccoons employ a combination of sight and touch to reach out and grasp an object (unless, of course, they're reaching into murky water). However, raccoons often use both hands, rather than one, to grasp, and they exhibit little independent movement of their digits [source: Pubols, Pubols and Munger].

One interesting difference in tactile sense between raccoons and primates is the raccoon's lack of papillary ridges. The ridges are microstructures in our skin that help us detect friction and create our fingerprints. In the hairless areas of human skin, namely our palms and soles, the ridges are packed with Meissner corpuscles. These individual living cells serve as specialized mechanoreceptors, responding to sensations like pressure or tension. With all of these factors combined, a study observing raccoons' eating behavior concluded that while their dexterity is specialized, it isn't as much of an anomaly as the washing behavior implied at first blush [source: Pubols, Pubols and Munger].

From a public relations standpoint, that probably isn't such a good thing for the raccoon. Previously, the rabies-carrying, food-stealing animal had the distinction of at least washing its food. Now, it looks like those sticky fingers could use a thorough rinsing.


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