Why Do Raccoons Wet Their Food

Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

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.

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Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

Raccoon Food-washing Habits: Making Mealtime a Tactile Experience

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.

Swimming With the Sharks

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].

See also:  How To Get Rid Of Baby Raccoons

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.

Last editorial update on Sep 17, 2018 04:00:35 pm.

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Why raccoons wash their food before eating

Dispelling the myth that raccoons wash their food

The short answer for why raccoons wash their food is, they don’t. Surprised? I sure was! You, like me, have probably always heard about how raccoons like to wash off their meal before they dine. But after noticing that raccoons in captivity go through the same motions with their food regardless of whether or not there is water around, researchers questioned if this was actually a habit based on cleanliness. What they discovered is that the propensity for raccoons to dip food in water actually has little to do with washing it. Instead, it’s all about making their paws more sensitive to touch, so they can take in more information — such as shape and texture — about what they’re about to eat.

Raccoon Eating Habits

Here is how How Stuff Works explains it: «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 . In a study examining the slowly adapting nerves in the forepaws of 136 raccoons, researchers found that wetting the skin increases the nerve responsiveness. 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.»

Gripping Food

In watching raccoons feeding at the edge of a pond, you’ll notice they often look up while moving their forepaws around to search for food, tap-tap-tapping along until they find something that feels like lunch. They’re using their hands to see and find food, rather than their eyes. Rolling their catch around in their paws lets them know just what they’re about to eat. Same goes for when there is no water around at all. While the action looks like washing, it’s more about getting a good enough grip on their catch and figuring out the best way to get their meal into their mouth.

If you’re worried about this ruining your perception of raccoons as cute little bandits that steal food from trash bins and backyards then wash it before eating, don’t worry — they’re still cute little bandits that steal food from trash bins and backyards.

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why do raccoons wash their food?

3 Answers

Raccoons have small, slender feet that they use to catch and hold on to their food. Their front feet resemble little hands, and their slender fingers can be used to remove garbage can lids and open containers and even door latches. Raccoons in the wild have often been observed swishing their food through the water of a lake or stream before eating, giving the appearance of washing their food and their hands. Raccoons kept in cages will also wet their food, dipping it into their water bowls.

Scientists are not sure why raccoons exhibit this behavior. At one time they believed raccoons did not have enough saliva and needed to moisten their food before swallowing it. They now know that isn’t true. Some believe raccoons might wet their food so they can mush it up a bit to make sure they’ve removed any sharp sticks or bones. Some have speculated that raccoons have a highly developed sense of touch, and they just like to handle their food in many different ways-putting it in water, rubbing dirt on it-to figure out what it is they are eating. Sometimes raccoons have been seen «washing» food in dirt instead of water, which indicates that this is an instinctive behavior that may not have any purpose at all. 🙂 🙂

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Northern Raccoon: frequent questions

Do raccoons get rabies?
The vast majority of raccoons don’t have rabies. Still, raccoons are the most frequently reported rabid animals. If you see one in the daytime, it’s probably a hungry mother — they have high energy needs while feeding their young and sometimes come out to eat, even in daylight. Symptoms of rabies include lethargy, stupor, walking in circles, paralysis of one or both back legs, falling over, eye or nose discharge, or unexplained aggressiveness. Call Animal Control if you observe these behaviors. Always watch raccoons from a distance; even healthy ones will act aggressive and bite if frightened or cornered.

Why do raccoons wash their food?
Many of us learned as young schoolchildren about the raccoon’s habit of “washing” his food. It seems like a really cool thing to do, but the truth is that raccoons don’t actually wash food. It’s more accurate to call it a moistening, and no one is really sure why they do it. Theories abound:

One theory is associated with their tactile ability: Their sense of touch is their strongest sense and perhaps raccoons wet their food to somehow feel its texture better. An old theory held that raccoons have no salivary glands and need to wet their food in order to digest it. But research has since shown that raccoons have normal salivary glands.

Research has shown that captive raccoons do douse their food if water is made available to them, but raccoons in the wild douse or don’t douse, depending on where their food is located and its proximity to water. And it seems they like to dunk regardless of whether their food is clean, dirty, wet or dry.

Dunking food is so ingrained that raccoons are known to go through the hand motions even when water isn’t available. Some researchers think this is simply a process of removing dirt and sand that would hurt their teeth, and others have reasoned that raccoons manipulate their food to soften it for consumption or to ensure it doesn’t contain sharp bones or other inedible particles. Finally, there’s the theory that they wet their food because, well, just because they do, as an evolutionary behavior for which there is no longer a practical reason.

How can I tell if raccoons are visiting my yard?
Start watching after dark. You might hear them if they’re crashing about your garbage cans or bird feeders. If you have a pond, they might be trying to catch fish there or moistening food. Walk into your yard with a flashlight. Look up into the trees, too. The light itself won’t alarm them, but keep your distance, for your own safety.

You can practically ensure seeing a raccoon if you place a bowl with some canned dog food outside every evening. Don’t feed them indefinitely, as a matter of safety for them and for yourself. Encouraging them to eat there regularly will lead to nuisance problems: Some people, for instance, have reported raccoons scratching and tearing at their door if food isn’t left out for them.

How smart are raccoons?
Very smart. By some accounts, they’re as smart as primates. William R. West, a wildlife photographer and naturalist, relates this example of their intelligence regarding the pet raccoon he had as a boy:

The raccoon, called Sparky, loved raw eggs. One day Sparky was moved to a new cage that had a chicken wire floor that was raised several inches above the ground. His old cage had a solid floor. On this day, Sparky was given a raw egg and he proceeded to follow his usual procedure of biting off the top of the egg so he could lap out the contents. However, the egg tilted and spilled its contents which, of course, drained through the wire. Sparky was given another egg. This time he went directly to his food bowl and held the egg over it as he opened and ate it. He never again lost an egg through the floor.

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Dick Meister tells a first-person account of trying to keep a group of raccoons out of his vegetable garden by setting up a water-spraying device, the raccoons simply aimed the sprayer away from the garden. Why they invited the coonskin cap

What should I do if I find a baby raccoon?
Orphans are rare. He may have wandered or fallen from his den. Observe the baby from a distance for several hours. The mother may be out foraging or even watching you from nearby. When she returns, she’ll carry him back to her den. If you know where the den is, while wearing heavy gloves, gently pick him up and return him to it.

If you’re certain he’s orphaned, while wearing heavy gloves place him in a lidded box (with air holes) or carrying case, with a towel in the bottom for warmth. Don’t try to feed him; the wrong kind of food could be harmful. Get him to a wildlife rehabilitator, as soon as possible. If you don’t know who to call, try this site. You might also be able to get information from your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

Granted, the baby is adorable and it’s tempting to try raising him yourself, but it’s best not to. Depending on his age and condition, he may need special foods or medical treatment for parasites or disease. An experienced rehabilitator will know just how to care for him so that he can be returned to the wild. Young raccoons need to stay fearful of humans for their own safety. Another thing, raccoons aren’t placid animals; even babies can give a serious bite and they become difficult to handle as they get older.

I’m raising a baby raccoon
It’s best not to keep a raccoon as a pet. Both as babies and adults they require a lot of attention in order to socialize them to humans. As adults, they’re unpredictable and can become aggressive and difficult to control. Raccoons are smart (according to some reports, as smart as primates) and curious by nature. This leads to destructive behavior inside the house (what’s behind that door, what’s inside that jar, what’s on top of the curtain rod, what’s in the refrigerator, what’s inside the sofa cushion…?), or to their having to be constantly caged, a miserable fate. During mating season they become frustrated and aggressive in response to their inability to find a mate. Also, it is hard to find a veterinarian who will treat them, as they’re susceptible to distemper.

Worse still, once a raccoon owner realizes the warnings aren’t exaggerated, that raccoons really don’t make good pets, what’s to be done with the “pet?” A pet raccoon can’t be released back into the wild. That’s because babies learn survival techniques from their mothers during their first three months of life, so lacking that knowledge means the poor pet won’t know how to defend himself or find food, water and shelter. The only realistic option may be to have him euthanized, a tragedy that could have been avoided.

I found an injured raccoon
If the injury doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, leave him alone. He’ll growl and snarl and you should take the warning seriously — he’s frightened and probably in pain, he’ll bite if he gets a chance. If he definitely needs help, take care not to get bitten or scratched and throw a blanket over him. This will help to calm him. Use a shovel or broom to gently scoop the whole bundle into a box (with plenty of air holes) or a pet carrier. The best choice is a wire crate, as a raccoon can bite right through softer material, should he decide to. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately. If you don’t know who to call, try this site You might also be able to get information from your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

If he was behaving abnormally (see the rabies section above), stay well away from the raccoon and call Animal Control. Follow him, if possible, so you can direct Animal Control to his location.

Are pets safe from raccoons
Yes and no. The vast majority of raccoons are not rabid, but they are susceptible to rabies. So, keep pets vaccinated against rabies. Raccoons are also susceptible to distemper (a virus), which can be transmitted to pets. Most raccoons carry a parasite, Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm that’s harmless to them, but dangerous to humans and pets. On the other hand, raccoons just want to be left alone and won’t attack unless threatened.

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