Living throughout most of the United States and southern Canada, these furry bandits typically inhabit wooded areas adjacent to a water source. Because they can find good food where people live, however, they’ve increasingly made their home in urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Most active during the early evening and at night, the raccoon (Procyon lotor) travels widely over its home territory in search of food. By day, raccoons den in hollow trees, rock crevices, other animal nests, or burrows, and, in mild weather, they often find protected resting spots on the ground. Where raccoons have adjusted to living in areas populated by people, they frequently den in attics, chimneys, and culverts.
Raccoons are omnivores, eating both plant and animal matter. During spring and early summer, they feast on insects, aquatic animals, mice and other small mammals, birds and turtles. In late summer, fall, and winter, raccoons tend to consume more plant material such as seeds, grains, and wild fruits. They aren’t very picky, either. Raccoons living in suburban and urban areas often raid garbage cans and backyard gardens at night.
Contrary to common opinion, raccoons don’t wash their food in order to clean it. Instead, they dabble their food in water because they’re accustomed to foraging for aquatic animals and because it "feels good" on their highly sensitive hands.
In northern regions, mating season peaks in January through late March. Because the male exhibits aggressive behavior toward the young, the female tolerates his presence only during mating and rears her young alone. Prior to giving birth in April or May, the female will establish a nest, often in a hollow tree, chimney, or similar cavity.
A litter commonly consists of two to five young. Immobile for the first eight weeks, the young are unable to leave the nest with their mother as she forages for food at night. When the young reach seven to nine weeks old, the mother moves her litter to an alternative nest site.
At this point, offspring are now old enough to accompany their mother on her nightly travels, gradually learning how to find their own food. Weaned at 16 weeks, they usually remain with the mother through the winter. They disband in the spring to seek their own territories.
Situations & Solutions
Raccoons can occasionally create significant issues for homeowners. Trash cans provide a plentiful supply of food, and chimneys and attics have replaced hollow trees as popular nesting sites. Exclusion serves as the only long-term solution for preventing raccoons from unwanted areas.
Raccoons in Chimneys
Capping a chimney before a raccoon moves in serves as the best deterrent. You can purchase caps at hardware stores and home centers, or hire a professional chimney sweep to install one.
If you discover raccoons in your chimney between March and June, you likely have a mother and her young. Since the kits are helpless and incapable of climbing out of the chimney during the first eight weeks of life, you have only two removal options:
1. Hire an animal control agent experienced in handling wildlife. He or she will remove the young and (after the chimney cap is in place) put them outdoors to wait for nightfall when the mother will move them to a new site. Contact MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) for the names of agents in your area.
2. Allow the family to remain in the chimney, until the young become mobile. After eight weeks, you can gently encourage the mother to relocate by placing an ammonia-soaked rag in the fireplace, and sealing the fireplace opening so the odor wafts upwards. A loud radio and bright light in the fireplace can add to her discomfort and encourage her to leave. As soon as you determine that the family has left, install the chimney cap.
Raccoons in Attics
Should a raccoon take up residence in your home, begin the eviction process by inspecting the attic for openings that provide the raccoon access indoors. Persuade the raccoon that your attic is not the, dark, quiet haven it desires by placing dishes of ammonia, a loud radio, and bright lights in the room. Continue this harassment for two or three days, and the raccoon should leave.
Between the months of March and June, when a mother and her young may occupy the attic, allow her time to carry them to an alternative site. Once you’ve determined that no raccoons remain inside, secure the openings with hardware cloth. Also, examine the outside of the building for tree limbs that provide bridges to your house.
Raccoons & Trash
Raccoons (as well as skunks and opossums) rummage through trash looking for edibles, usually leaving a mess in the process. Discourage raccoons and other wildlife by keeping trash in a secured building or enclosure. (This does not include screened porches, which raccoons can easily claw through.) See figures below for raccoon-proof enclosures to protect trash barrels.
Raccoons & Gardens
Raccoons will readily harvest the fruits and vegetables of an unprotected garden, but you can install a fence to deter them.
At the edge of the garden, place three-foot wide chicken wire flat on the ground; then erect a four- or six-foot high vertical chicken wire fence on top, making sure you have a little more than two feet of exposed ground wire on the outside edge. Animals tend to start digging at the base of a vertical fence, but the horizontal chicken wire makes it impossible to get through.
You can also try stringing bright flashing lights around the garden or blaring a radio to discourage night raids by raccoons. Eventually, however, the animals acclimate to these tricks if they deem the prize tempting enough.
Raccoons & The Law
Relocating wildlife is illegal in Massachusetts. It’s detrimental to the wellbeing of wildlife as well as the public. Learn More
Raccoons & Public Health
Raccoons can transmit disease to other wildlife, domestic animals, and, occasionally, humans. Although there’s no need to panic at the sight of a raccoon walking through your yard, you should avoid contact with raccoons, their feces, and den sites. People should never keep raccoons as pets—it’s illegal and dangerous—nor should they deliberately feed these animals.
A raccoon that appears friendly and approachable may actually be sick, and children should be taught to stay away. If you encounter a sick, injured, or orphaned animal, don’t attempt to handle it; contact your local animal control officer or police department for advice. Discourage raccoons from frequenting your home or yard by eliminating food sources and excluding them from possible den sites.
Health officials confirmed raccoons infected with the rabies virus in Massachusetts in September of 1992, and since that time, the disease has spread to nearly every community in the Commonwealth. The virus, communicable to all mammals including humans, has been working its way northward from West Virginia since the late 1970s. Learn More
Raccoons can carry both canine and feline distemper, both serious diseases caused by different viral agents. Both distempers pose no threat to humans, but can be detrimental to cats and dogs.
Abnormal behavior, disorientation, aggressiveness, and weakness in the hind limbs are all symptoms of distemper. To prevent the spread of disease—transmitted via inhalation of aerosol droplets found in feces, bodily fluids, and possibly contaminated objects—vaccinate your dog or cat.
Roundworm is a host-specific parasite that can mature and reproduce only in the small intestine of raccoons. Raccoons show no ill effects from the intrusion, but health problems can arise if the microscopic eggs, deposited in the raccoon's feces, enter the body of a non-host species.
The sticky eggs adhere to any surface (wood, fur, grass, etc.) and are viable for three to five years.
Wild and domestic animals, birds, and humans are at risk if the eggs come in contact with the eyes or mouth. When larvae hatch in the body of a non-host, they form cysts in muscle, lung, eye, or brain tissue. Effects, which include nervous disorders, eye and coordination problems, and paralysis, can appear within days or weeks, depending on the number of eggs ingested.
Only incineration can destroy the eggs of roundworm, so it’s best to avoid any direct contact with raccoon feces or den sites.
For more information, visit the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.