What is a Raccoon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A raccoon is a mammal in the genus Procyon; P. lotor, the common raccoon, is probably the best known animal in the genus. These animals are native to North America, and their range extends partially into Central America as well. Because they are extremely intelligent and highly adaptable, racoons are familiar animals to many people in North America, even those living in cities, as they are quite capable of surviving in the urban environment.

A baby raccoon.
A baby raccoon.

The name comes from the Virginia Algonquin language. Early English visitors to North America were familiar with the animals by 1609, thanks to their useful fur as well as their potentially edible flesh. Captain John Smith is generally credited with introducing the animal to curious Europeans, writing in a confused description that they were like badgers, only they climbed trees.

A raccoon.
A raccoon.

Raccoons tend to be around double the size of a house cat, with mousy gray bodies and bushy ringed trails. Most distinctively, they have black facial markings that look sort of like a bandit's mask. The animals have extremely agile front feet that many people liken to hands, and muscular back legs that help them climb trees, swim, and run rapidly after prey.

As a general rule, these animals are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of foods including nuts, grasses, seeds, fish, small animals, and scavenged material. Their agile front feet allow them to catch fish by hand, and they can also pry the lids from garbage cans, open doors, and manipulate other human-constructed objects to get at desirable foods.

The raccoon is primarily a solitary animal, although they do get together in the late winter to mate, with litters being born in the spring. Mothers will generally look after their young for a few months before encouraging them to seek their fortunes elsewhere, while fathers are not involved in child rearing.

These mammals are excellent problem-solvers, which can be a problem for people who might try to prevent raccoons from accessing things. In cities, they wreak havoc on garbage cans and dumpsters, and they have also been known to get into cars and homes in their quests for food. For gardeners and farmers, they can be extremely annoying, as they will kill small farm animals like chickens and ducks, and tear up gardens in search of delicacies.

In some areas, people keep raccoons as pets, typically purchasing them from breeders or people who specialize in taming young ones for sale. This practice is restricted in some regions, due to concerns about rabies, a disease that this animals frequently carry.

A raccoon on the edge of a trash can.
A raccoon on the edge of a trash can.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cloudel – Garbage is raccoon bait, unfortunately. It's a shame that they inconvenience people to the point of making them put a lock on their garbage bins!

I recently had a raccoon get into the dogfood tub in my utility room. The room is in the carport, and I keep the door open so my dogs can go in there for shelter if they want to.

I have a big plastic tub with a lid that snaps shut, and I keep the dogfood in there. I found that one side of the lid had been chewed on, and something had lifted and removed the lid so that it lay diagonally across the top of the tub. I knew the dogs couldn't have done this, and since I've seen raccoons around the area a lot, I believe they are the only thing that could have gripped and removed the lid.


If you are going to set raccoon traps, please use the humane kind that capture them in a cage so that you can set them free miles away. If you set the kind that injure or kill them, you run the risk of catching someone's dog or cat in the trap.


I was in the vet's office recently and overheard a lady asking how to get rid of raccoons. She lived in the city in an apartment, but still, raccoons were getting into her garbage.

They could get the lid off the can, so the only thing she could do was get a garbage bin with wire mesh all around and a locking lid. She was going to have to actually get a padlock to keep the raccoons out!


I had heard that raccoons could drown a dog in a pond if threatened, but I didn't believe it until it happened to my dog. She was always hunting and bringing home dead wild animals, but this one would not be taken.

I don't know exactly how it happened, because I wasn't there when it did. She went missing, and we found her body three days later in a pond out in the pasture.

Her face was all scratched up and she was floating in the middle of the pond. The raccoon had jumped on her head and held her under, or at least that's what I'm told must have happened. My dog weighed over sixty pounds, and it was hard for me to believe that something so much smaller than her could have done this.


@chrisinbama: Raccoons in the wild only have an average life expectancy of about 2 to 3 years. However, there have been reported cases of some living up to 16 years. Raccoons have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity.

Raccoon breeding normally happens between January and March. The male will mate with more than one female but has no part in raising the young. The female gives birth to one liter per year. The size of the litter ranges from 1 to 8 cubs. The average litter is from 3 to 4.

Most babies are born in April or May. After about 9 weeks, they explore the world outside of the den and start consuming solid food. By around 16 weeks, they are usually weaned.


Can anyone give me a little information on the lifespan and breeding habits of raccoons? Thanks a bunch!

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