Raccoons (Procyon lotor) are medium-sized mammals native to North America. They are known for their distinctive appearance, which includes a masked face, ringed tail, and dexterous front paws. Raccoons are highly adaptable and have successfully expanded their range to urban, suburban, and rural areas, making them a common sight in many parts of North America.
Raccoons typically measure 16 to 28 inches in length, excluding their tail. Their tails are usually 7 to 16 inches long. Adult raccoons can weigh between 10 to 30 pounds, with males often being larger than females. Raccoons have grayish-brown fur with a distinctive black mask that covers their eyes.
The word raccoon was adopted into English from the native Powhatan term meaning ‘animal that scratches with its hands’, as used in the Colony of Virginia. It was recorded on John Smith’s list of Powhatan words as aroughcun and on that of William Strachey as arathkone. It has also been identified as a reflex of a Proto-Algonquian root, meaning ‘[the] one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands’. The word is sometimes spelled as racoon.
They also have a series of dark rings around their bushy tail. Their front paws are highly dexterous and resemble human hands. Raccoons have five fingers on each front paw, including an opposable thumb. This opposable thumb allows them to grasp and manipulate objects with remarkable precision.
The fingers are long and agile, making them capable of fine motor skills. Their highly sensitive paws are equipped with a large number of sensory receptors. These sensitive paws help them feel objects and detect textures, which is essential for foraging and exploring their environment, particularly in the dark.
Its Latin name literally means ‘before-dog washer’. The genus Procyon was named by Gottlieb Conrad Christian Storr. The animal’s observed habit of “washing” or “dowsing” (see below) is the source of its name in other languages. For example, the French raton laveur means washing rat.
Raccoons are known to use their hands as tools for various tasks, such as opening trash cans, prying apart food, and even manipulating locks and latches. Their ability to manipulate objects has led to their classification as procyonids (family Procyonidae), a group of mammals known for their manipulative abilities.
They have adapted to an omnivorous diet, and their hands are crucial for capturing and handling a wide variety of food items, including fruits, vegetables, insects, small mammals, and aquatic prey. Their hands allow them to turn over rocks, logs, and other objects in search of hidden prey. Raccoons are excellent swimmers and can even catch aquatic prey like fish and crayfish. Their front paws are well-suited for grabbing and handling these aquatic creatures. They are agile climbers, and their hand structure helps them grip tree branches and scale trees with ease.
Their meals can include nuts, berries, fruits, acorns, grasshoppers, mice, fish, frogs, insects, small mammals, and ground-dwelling birds and their eggs. Raccoons are also adept scavengers. They rummage through garbage cans and compost piles and steal pet food that is left outside overnight. They climb bird feeders and dine on birdseed, as well.
Their hands also enable them to create dens in tree cavities or similar sheltered locations. Raccoons use their front paws for social communication. They may engage in tactile interactions, such as grooming, during social bonding activities. They may also use their paws to signal submission or dominance during confrontations with other raccoons.
Raccoons’ versatile hands are a key factor in their adaptability to a wide range of environments, including urban areas where they often encounter human-made objects that require manipulation. Originally found primarily in North America, raccoons have expanded their range and are now found in parts of Europe and Asia due to human introductions. They inhabit a wide range of ecosystems, including forests, wetlands, urban areas, and agricultural landscapes.
The colloquial abbreviation coon is used in words like coonskin for fur clothing and in phrases like old coon as a self-designation of trappers. In the 1830s, the United States Whig Party used the raccoon as an emblem, causing them to be pejoratively known as “coons” by their political opponents, who saw them as too sympathetic to African-Americans. Soon after that, the term became an ethnic slur, especially in use between 1880 and 1920, and the term is still considered offensive. Dogs bred to hunt raccoons are called coonhounds and coon dogs.
Raccoons are adaptable and can thrive in various environments. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, which means they are most active at night. are generally solitary animals, and adults are territorial, marking their territories with scent markings. Raccoons possess anal glands, also known as anal sacs, which produce a pungent, oily secretion. These glands are located near the base of the raccoon’s tail. They use the secretion from their anal glands to mark their territory and communicate with other raccoons.
This marking is particularly important in densely populated areas where raccoons may overlap in territories. Male raccoons, in particular, use their anal gland secretions to mark their territory. They may rub their hindquarters or drag their tails along the ground to deposit scent markings on prominent objects in their territory. The scent markings serve as a warning to other raccoons, indicating that the territory is occupied.
They may deter intruders or help establish dominance in confrontations with other males. During the breeding season, female raccoons may use scent markings to signal their reproductive status to males. A receptive female may leave scent markings to attract potential mates. Raccoons often mark specific sites within their territory, such as the bases of trees, rocks, logs, and prominent pathways. The locations of these scent markings are strategic, allowing raccoons to communicate effectively with other members of their species. Within raccoon social groups, scent markings can help establish and maintain social hierarchies.
Dominant individuals may use scent markings to assert their status and control resources within the group. They have an acute sense of smell, and they can detect and interpret the scent markings left by other raccoons. These markings provide information about the identity, sex, reproductive status, and territory boundaries of neighboring raccoons. In addition to scent markings, raccoons also communicate through visual and auditory signals.
Visual signals include body postures and facial expressions, while auditory signals include vocalizations like chittering and growling. While scent markings are a vital aspect of raccoon communication, it’s important to note that raccoons can carry the raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) in their feces. Handling raccoon feces or contaminated objects can pose a risk of infection, as the roundworm’s eggs are highly resistant and can be harmful to humans and other animals. Raccoon scent markings are a sophisticated form of communication that helps raccoons establish territories, maintain social hierarchies, and convey important information to other members of their species.
These markings play a crucial role in raccoon behavior and interactions with their environment. Please exercise caution and proper hygiene when dealing with raccoon feces or contaminated areas to minimize the risk of disease transmission. Raccoons typically breed in late winter or early spring, with a gestation period of about 63 days. A female raccoon can give birth to a litter of 1 to 7 kits, with an average litter size of 3 to 4.
Mothers are highly protective of their young and provide care for several months until the kits are capable of foraging on their own. Raccoons are known carriers of rabies, a viral disease that can be transmitted to humans and other animals. Raccoons are considered a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Their adaptability to human-modified landscapes has helped them maintain stable populations. Raccoons can be considered pests when they raid garbage cans, damage crops, or nest in attics and chimneys. Raccoons have been featured in various cultural and folkloric stories, particularly in North America.
Informal regional variations or designations of raccoons based on their geographic distribution
- Eastern Raccoon (Procyon lotor lotor): Description: Found in the eastern and central parts of North America. Typically larger with dense fur.
- Florida Raccoon (Procyon lotor elucus): Description: Smaller in size with a reddish coloration. Adapted to the warmer climate of Florida.
- California Raccoon (Procyon lotor psora): Description: Found on the West Coast of the United States, smaller with a lighter, grayish coat.
- Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor hirtus): Description: Larger and heavier than some southern populations, found in northern regions of North America.
- Key Largo Raccoon (Procyon lotor maynardi): Description: A smaller raccoon subspecies found in the Florida Keys.
- Texas Raccoon (Procyon lotor attwateri): Description: Slightly smaller than Eastern raccoons, found in Texas and nearby areas.
- Bahamian Raccoon (Procyon lotor incautus): Description: Found in the Bahamas, smaller and lighter in color. Raccoons occur on a number of islands in the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies. Zooarcheological studies have long suggested that these animals are not native to the West Indies. Originally, Caribbean populations were described as endemic insular species Procyon maynardi (Bahamas), P.
- Mexican Raccoon (Procyon lotor pumilus): Description: Smaller than typical Eastern raccoons, found in Mexico. Coatis (from Tupí), also known as coatimundis (/koʊˌɑːtɪˈmʌndi/), are members of the family Procyonidae in the genera Nasua and Nasuella. They are diurnal mammals native to South America, Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern United States.
- Northern Rockies Raccoon (Procyon lotor lutensis): Description: Raccoons range from Canada and throughout the United States (excluding the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains and much of the Southwest) into Mexico and Central America, slightly larger and heavier.
- Southwest Raccoon (Procyon lotor rufus): Description: Found in the southwestern United States, with a reddish tint to their fur.
- Great Basin Raccoon (Procyon lotor pallescens): Description: Inhabits the Great Basin region, with adaptations to a more arid environment. There are many ways to describe the average New Yorker: adaptable, resourceful, always on the lookout for a free meal. Coincidentally, these are qualities also shared by New York City’s raccoons (Procyon lotor). Perhaps it should come as no surprise. After all, city living can be tough, regardless of your species. Surviving in the urban jungle requires using every resource at your disposal. And raccoons, like their human counterparts, are extremely capable of doing just that.
- Ozark Raccoon (Procyon lotor ozarkensis): Description: Found in the Ozark Plateau region, known for its rolling hills and valleys. Missouri Department of Conservation surveys show the raccoon population is rising, but their hands are tied when it comes to helping you get rid of them. Francis Skalicky with the Missouri Department of Conservation said raccoons are hunted less and are starting to become more comfortable in urban areas.
- Coastal Raccoon (Procyon lotor littoralis): Description: The original habitats of the raccoon are deciduous and mixed forests, but due to their adaptability, they have extended their range to mountainous areas, coastal marshes, and urban areas, where some homeowners consider them to be pests.
- Midwestern Raccoon (Procyon lotor rufiventris): Description: Found in the Midwestern United States.
- Hudson Bay Raccoon (Procyon lotor various): Description: Found in the Hudson Bay region of Canada.
- Central American Raccoon (Procyon lotor mayensis): Description: The coati is closely related to the raccoon. And like its cousin, this mammal is the size of a large house cat, has a ringed tail, and hangs out in trees.
- Colombian Raccoon (Procyon lotor simus): The crab-eating raccoon can be found in South America and parts of Central America. It can be found in Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
- Peruvian Raccoon (Procyon lotor peruviensis): Description: They occur throughout Latin America, east of Costa Rica and Peru to Uruguay.
- Ecuadorian Raccoon (Procyon lotor orinomus): Description: Found in Ecuador and the Orinoco Basin. They live high up in the cloud forests of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador
- Belizean Raccoon (Procyon lotor maya): Description: Inhabits Belize and surrounding areas. The Quash, a member of the raccoon family, is a gregarious little fellow up to the age of two years.
Determining if a raccoon is rabid can be challenging from a distance, but there are some signs that may indicate rabies infection. A rabid raccoon may exhibit erratic behavior such as aggression, disorientation, stumbling, excessive salivation, and vocalizations.
- Rabies can cause fully or partially paralyzed hind legs.
- It can also cause raccoons to walk in circles.
- A sick raccoon will almost appear drunk, or very lost.
- Raccoons do typically chatter among themselves, and they can make loud noises while fighting or mating, but sick raccoons will make very strange noises or whimper.
- Foaming at the mouth.
- A sick animal will pant heavily, look lethargic or limp, and generally look sick.
Additionally, they may be more active during daylight hours, which is unusual for raccoons. However, it’s important to exercise extreme caution and never approach a raccoon displaying such behavior, as rabies can be transmitted through bites or scratches. Instead, contact local animal control or wildlife authorities for assistance.
Accurate diagnosis of rabies in raccoons requires laboratory testing of brain tissue. Studies of raccoons in epizootic areas indicate that more than 20% of the raccoon population have a natural immunity to rabies, according to the Rabies Unit for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Powhatan refers to a prominent Native American chiefdom and tribal confederation that existed in the eastern region of what is now the United States, primarily in the area known today as Virginia. Chief Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacawh, was a paramount chief who ruled over several Algonquian-speaking tribes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Powhatan Confederacy, under his leadership, had a complex social and political structure and interacted with English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early colonial period, notably with the arrival of the Virginia Company. These interactions, including the marriage of Pocahontas (Chief Powhatan’s daughter) to English settler John Rolfe, had significant historical implications. The Powhatan chiefdom eventually faced conflicts and changes with the arrival of European settlers, leading to the transformation of the region and its indigenous cultures. [Back]
- John Smith was an English soldier, explorer, and adventurer who played a pivotal role in the early years of the Virginia Colony in the early 17th century. He is best known for his leadership at the Jamestown settlement, where he helped the struggling colony survive by implementing strict discipline and establishing trade relationships with local Native American tribes. Smith is also famous for his encounters with Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, which contributed to peaceful relations between the English settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy for a time. His writings, particularly his book “The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles,” provide valuable insights into the early years of English colonization in North America. [Back]
- William Strachey was an English writer and a prominent figure in the early colonial history of North America. He is best known for his role as the secretary of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia during the early 17th century. Strachey’s writings, including “The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britannia,” provide valuable historical accounts and observations of the Jamestown settlement and the early interactions between English settlers and Native Americans. His work offers insights into the challenges and hardships faced by the early colonists and is considered an important source for understanding the early history of Virginia. [Back]
- The Rabies Unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is responsible for monitoring, researching, and providing guidance on rabies prevention and control in the United States. This unit plays a critical role in studying rabies transmission in wildlife, domestic animals, and humans, as well as developing strategies for rabies prevention, surveillance, and response. The CDC’s Rabies Unit also works in collaboration with state and local health departments to investigate rabies cases, administer post-exposure prophylaxis, and ensure that the public receives accurate information about rabies risks and prevention measures. [Back]
- “11 Riveting Facts About Raccoons” (November 4, 2022) https://www.treehugger.com/raccoon-facts-5073585
- “Raccoon” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). Rabies in Wildlife. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/exposure/animals/wildlife_reservoirs.html
- “5 Telltale Signs Of A Rabid Raccoon” https://www.purcorpest.com/blog/5-telltale-signs-of-a-rabid-raccoon/
- National Park Service. (n.d.). Powhatan Indian World. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/powhatan-indian-world.htm
- National Park Service. (n.d.). John Smith: English Explorer and Colonist. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/john-smith-english-explorer-and-colonist.htm
- National Park Service. (n.d.). William Strachey: Secretary of the Colony of Virginia. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/william-strachey-secretary-of-the-colony-of-virginia.htm