Featured Animal: May 2016
Distribution in the US
Raccoons are one of 3 species in the Procyonidae family in North America. The others are the Ringtail and the Coati, both common in southwestern US. Ringtails are also at home in southern Utah. Raccoons are probably one of the most commonly known mammals in North America. They are known for their characteristic masked faces and their ability to cause mischief by getting into trash cans, sheds and chicken coops. They are easy to identify via their facial masks, and their bushy black banded tails. Additionally, their hind foot print resembles that hand print of a small child. Adults commonly weigh 11-18lbs; however their weight and size is dependent on where in the US the live, and what they’ve been eating. Historically, raccoons were limited in their distribution across North America to areas with access to water. As European settlers established towns and farms across the continent, raccoons found ways to exploit the food and water resources that were created. In many distribution maps, Utah and the desert southwest are excluded as places that are too dry for raccoons. However, raccoons are very adaptable and have been able to populate riparian and developed areas throughout Utah. There were sparse records of the species in Utah through the 20th century. The population of the raccoon increased with the expansion of agriculture, urbanization and extermination of their natural predators. Currently, there are trapping records for raccoons in every county in Utah.
Raccoons are usually nocturnal and have outstanding night vision. However, it is not unusual for them to be active throughout the day searching for food. Raccoons are omnivores, and eat a wide variety of food including berries, fruit, crustaceans, fish, eggs, small birds and lizards, and human trash scraps. Their wide diet selection helps them acclimate to a variety of habitat types, such as forests, fields, and urban settings. However, their natural habitat is in wooded habitats within close proximity to streams. Their hearty appetite allows them to store up fat to survive the winter. While they don’t hibernate, raccoons will find dens in hollow trees, caves, rocks, sheds, and attics – just to name a few – where they will sleep for several days at a time. It is common for several raccoons to den together in the winter. Throughout the year, raccoons are social animals. Females often have overlapping home ranges, which then overlap with one or more males.
In the wild raccoons can live from 2-3 years and there have been cases where raccoons in captivity have lived up to 20 years. Like most mammals, raccoons give birth to live young, which they take care of until the young can go out on their own. Female raccoons can breed when they are as young as 10 months old. The breeding season for raccoons is acclimated to where in the US the animal is living. Peak breeding season in Utah is commonly in February. Female raccoons can have from 2-6 young in a litter and the mothers are highly invested in their young.
Raccoons and Human Conflict
In many areas of the US, raccoons are a common backyard wildlife animal, and are tolerated and sometimes welcomed as urban wildlife. However, raccoons can cause serious damage in both urban areas and agriculture areas. In urban areas, raccoons often lose their fear of humans, and generally are content to live in close proximity to homes, using peoples’ homes and outbuildings as both a source of shelter and food. They are infamous for getting into trash cans, tipping them over and spreading the trash in their search for food. Additionally, they can rip shingles and destroy roofs while they gain access to attics for shelter. They can gain access to homes via chimneys and may also plug the chimney if they choose this location for a nest or winter shelter. Many home owners have acclimated to this mischief by installing chimney caps and using any number of locking devices on their trash cans. In agricultural settings, raccoons have been known to damage crops such as corn, melons, and fruit trees, and even simple backyard gardens. Raccoons are also well-known predators of chicken coops; feeding on chickens, ducks, feed and eggs.
Raccoon and Human Safety
Because of their proximity to humans, sometimes sharing even the same roof, raccoons can pose a serious human safety hazard. Raccoons carry several different diseases and parasites that can be contracted by humans and other animals. Raccoons can carry fleas, lice, distemper, mange, roundworm and rabies. Of these, rabies and raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) are of the greatest concern to humans.
Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system, transmitted through the saliva of a number of mammalian hosts, such as raccoons. Often, humans contract the virus from a bite of pet that has contracted rabies from contact with raccoons. In humans, rabies symptoms begin as a headache or general tiredness. The disease progresses with symptoms including anxiety, insomnia and confusion. Without the treatment contracting the virus will result in death. If you think you may have been exposed to rabies, please contact your nearest health services center (hospital) immediately.
Baylisascariasis is a disease that results from contracting the roundworm B. procyonis. The roundworm is present in raccoon populations, but does not harm the raccoon. The eggs of the roundworm are shed in the raccoons’ feces. In rare cases, humans ingest these eggs and contract that roundworm. Often, these rare cases are children that may be playing in the dirt around their home, get the eggs under their fingernails (for example) and then place their hands in their mouths. The roundworm larvae begin to travel through the body, burrowing through muscle tissue and organs. Symptoms are various, depending on what part of the body is being damaged, but include nausea, loss of muscle coordination, and neurological problems. The larvae can also access the eyes, resulting in blindness. If you think you or your child may have been exposed to raccoon feces, please contact your nearest health services center immediately.
Raccoon Damage Prevention
Raccoons’ ability to acclimate and adjust to changing surrounding make them very difficult to manage. Efforts to control damage to crops has not been shown to be economical. Exclusionary measures to keep raccoons from chicken coops, homes and other structures CAN be successful ( see http://icwdm.org/handbook/carnivor/raccoons.asp). Using woven wire to cover any access points into a coop or home will often successfully exclude raccoons. However, it is best to ensure that the raccoons are out of the home before one installs the exclusionary measure.
The use of a sturdy wire cage trap is the most common method for trapping and removing raccoons from a home or yard. However, they can be difficult to handle once trapped, and it is often best to let the trapping be conducted by a local wildlife biologist that is equipped to handle the trap once the raccoon is caught. Because of disease concerns, raccoons cannot be trapped and relocated. Once trapped, they must be euthanized.
Modifying your home to reduce its attractiveness to raccoons can help reduce their activity where you live. The most common solution is to remove pet food from outside, both feed bags and pet dishes. Remove brush piles that can be used as shelter by raccoons. Install mesh fencing around the base of sheds that have a crawl space. Not having raccoons in the area is the best way to keep from experiencing negative interactions with raccoons. Raccoons can be great wildlife neighbors with a little bit of preventive care from home owners.
Edward Boggess. 1994. Raccoons.
Center for Disease Control. 2016. Baylisascaris infection.
Center for Disease Control. 2016. Rabies.
Corey M. Huxoll, Terry A. Messmer and Mike Conover. 2010. Raccoons. Utah State University Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet.
M. R. Conover and R. M. Vail. 2015. Human Diseases from Wildlife. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Jan F. Kamlerl .2, Warren B. Ballard l , Brent R. Helliker3, and San Stiver. 2003. RANGE EXPANSION OF RACCOONS IN WESTERN UTAH AND CENTRAL NEVADA. Western North American Naturalist 63(3), ©2003, pp. 406-408