Raccoons may seem cute and cuddly, but they can be nasty, sneaky, and like to carry big guns around. But generally, their primary interest is in your trash and not in saving the galaxy, so they’re far more of a nuisance than they are beneficial.
Here’s all you need to know about raccoons, how to get rid of raccoons, and keep these masked bandits from treating your home like a free buffet.
Getting to Know Raccoons
Raccoons are one of the most intelligent species you’ll run into. They understand problem solving, have a decent memory, and are masters of getting into trouble.
Some people keep them as pets, but even raised from birth, they can grow feral over the years. Their name is actually an Anglicanization of a Powhatan phrase meaning “animal that scratches with its hands”.
What do Raccoons Look Like?
Raccoons (or Procyon lotor, if you want to sound fancy) are grey critters that grow to be a foot tall, 24 to 30 inches long, and weigh 14 to 23 pounds (about the size of a large house cat).
They have five black rings on their tail, a pointy, black nosed snout, and a telltale black bandit mask-shaped marking around their eyes.
Raccoons tend to walk on all fours, but can use their front paws to perform extremely dexterous tasks.
Raccoons are native to North America, where they can be found almost anywhere, including Greenland. Recently, perhaps due to the exotic pet trade or stowaways, raccoons have begun to colonize parts of Europe and Japan. In many Slavic countries, intentional attempts have been made to introduce raccoons to the ecosystem, with some success.
When possible, raccoons prefer a nice forest with plenty of trees, water, and flora. There, they’re known for claiming abandoned burrows or nesting in hollow trees. Foraging for food, a raccoon is known to travel up to 18 miles from home.
Due to large scale deforestation, raccoons have adapted to urban and rural life. This ability to adapt to most circumstances is another reason their intelligence cannot be underestimated.
They’re a lot bolder around humans than other pests, although healthy raccoons will still be cautious and know when to make an escape. Unlike their wild kin, urban raccoons rarely stray more than a mile from their den, due to the greater amount of danger and abundance of food sources.
Where do Raccoons Nest?
While excellent diggers, raccoons prefer to make use of abandoned spaces to set up home. This includes burrows built by other critters, hollow trees, attics, and similar places.
Elevation is a safety preference, so you’re more likely to find them in trees or behind walls than in a burrow when the option is there.
What Does a Raccoon Nest Look Like?
Raccoons aren’t picky about their dens, and likewise, they’re not picky about making a nice bed. Usually, the nest is made up of long grasses, hay or other soft materials. Occasionally, a raccoon will scavenge bits of fabric to add.
The biggest danger is when a female moves into your home, as she’ll shred the insulation for bedding. Unless you’re an experienced raccoon-watcher, you likely won’t be able to tell a raccoon nest from that of other critters (squirrels, for example), although they’re not as well woven as with other species.
What do Raccoons Eat?
Raccoons enjoy a varied diet in the wild, preferring mainly protein-rich foods. They enjoy hunting birds, frogs, any type of seafood, eggs, fruit, nuts, snakes, lizards, and insects. This huge menu means they have very little trouble finding plenty of food in the wild.
In a more populated setting, these critters expand to include human food. They’ll often rifle through trash looking for scraps and will gladly eat fast food or take care of last night’s leftovers for you.
They also have a habit of raiding gardens, which can result in a lot of damage to plants. In a pinch, they’ve even been known to cause structural damage in the effort to get to your personal food supplies.
As with many other critters you’re likely to encounter at home, raccoons are nocturnal and prefer to hibernate through most of the winter. They’re more likely to sleep through the entire winter in the wild.
A raccoon will snarl when approached, but will usually back down and run unless cornered. Be warned, rabid raccoons will attack and can be easily seen during the day (although healthy urban raccoons have been known to hang out in parks during the day looking for food as well).
Breeding season comes towards the end of winter, with litters of up to six kits coming in April or May. Until they leave home, a mother raccoon is highly protective of her young and can potentially attack humans or pets that get too close.
The young become independent at around a year to 14 months old, when they leave home and form new communities (called nurseries) of four to five adults. As the lifespan for a raccoon in the wild is only about three years, this means they spend a third of their life with their mothers.
The raccoon language is surprisingly complex, with over 200 different sounds and between 12 and 15 calls. This allows them to be highly organized on a garbage raid and allow them to warn of approaching danger.
This is especially useful in urban settings, as these playful critters are known to take advantage of swimming pools, slides, and your dog’s toys to have a little late night fun. Their habit of cleaning food before eating it (either by washing or rubbing off debris) has long been one of the most endearing habits for humans who enjoy critter watching.
Wild vs Pet Raccoons
This little discourse would not be complete without mentioning pet raccoons. You should never raise a raccoon from the wild, as they pose a major health risk and can go feral with age. Many professional breeders do offer semi-domesticated kits, however.
A domestic raccoon can be a great pet for much of its life, which can be as long as 20 years. The downside is that they (much like fennecs and other exotics) can become increasingly feral in their old age, leaving many owners to abandon their pet in the wild (where it generally doesn’t survive long).
It takes a special, dedicated human to be able to raise a raccoon, and you must be very careful not to let it near its wild kin.
Because of their intelligence and general cuteness, raccoons have always been a favorite critter in folklore and mythology. Native Americans often considered them to be tricksters or important spirit animals.
The Mexicans (AKA Aztec) revered the protective qualities of raccoon mothers, considering them a symbol for a wise woman. They’ve appeared in comics, movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, Disney’s Pocahontas, Over the Hedge, etc.), and one named Oreo was the star of his own YouTube channel (Oreo and Friends).
How to Get Rid of Raccoons
Getting rid of raccoons can be a lot tougher than many other critters due to their high intelligence and persistence. What works once might not work again, and even effective repellents might take several encounters to get the message across.
The good news is there are effective methods of getting rid of these pests and keeping them away.
In the Attic
Your attic and chimney are highly attractive spots for an expecting mother. She’ll be quite interested in the dark, dry, and safe environment. Put a stop to this by waiting for her to leave for a night’s foraging and leaving her a nasty surprise for when she returns.
Place plenty of bright lights in the space and a few radios set to loudly broadcast a talk station. Check to make sure there are no young.
You’ll need an exterminator to come and remove any kits you find ASAP. The next day, make sure she’s not in your home and begin ensuring she can’t return.
Trim away any tree branches or other means of access from the outside. You should also seal any potential entry points, as other critters might take up residence. There are barriers designed specifically for chimneys as well.
Be warned, one raccoon could be a sign of an entire nursery, and they’ll often tuck kits into wall crevices where they’re hard to spot. Don’t be afraid to hire a professional if the task seems too difficult.
In the Yard and Garden
Your yard and garden are buffet tables for the average raccoon. Not only will they get into your plants, they can also dig up your yard looking for snacks.
You’ll want to put a fence around your garden and/or protect it with a good homemade repellent. In addition, you’ll want to treat your lawn for grubs, as raccoons love to snack on these more than any other insect.
Be warned, getting rid of insects might include losing beneficial ones as well, so use caution when attempting to use any pesticides.
By far, the best method is to use a good trap and relocate the raccoon. This can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared, so you may wish to hire a professional to trap and remove these pests.
Traps can easily be set up in your backyard and may catch other invading critters by accident.
Under the House
Again, a good trap (such as this one) is the best option if the infestation is under a porch or in a crawlspace. You’ll need to be careful not to leave the kits behind, as they’ll die without their mother and create further health risks.
As it’s dangerous to venture into a tight space where wild critters might dwell, this is an instance where hiring an exterminator or calling a local animal control department might be the best option.
Using an exclusionary device like the Tomahawk Excluder to evict the adults can be a great solution, especially if done by mid-March before the females give birth.
To place an exclusionary device, you’ll want to make sure all potential entry points (which can be as small as four inches) are sealed except for one. This is where you’ll install the exclusion device.
The raccoons can exit but not reenter, and you can seal this final opening completely once you’re sure there’s nobody left inside.
How to Remove a Raccoon (Safely)
When trapping a raccoon, it’s important that you follow some safety procedures. Pick a live trap designed specifically for raccoons or for gophers and similar-sized animals. We prefer this one but Havahart also makes good traps at a slightly higher price.
Use thick leather work gloves and thick, long-sleeved clothing when attempting to handle an occupied trap. Never put your face near the trap or allow children or pets near it.
Before picking up the trap, it is often a good idea to put a large towel over it. Not only can this often calm an animal somewhat, but it will also provide an extra barrier to protect against bites or scratches.
Hold the trap away from you when loading it onto a vehicle and take the critter at least five miles away (remember, they can travel up to 18 miles and find their way home). Use extreme caution while releasing the raccoon to avoid the risk of it attacking once loose.
Finish up by either getting rid of the towel or soaking it in bleach to destroy any bacteria.
You can make a great DIY repellent spray out of normal household spices and water. Just mix with water, put in a spray bottle, and squirt it on your plants and the nearby ground. Not only will the smell put them off, but certain items (such as cayenne pepper) can be sprinkled around your trash can to irritate their paws when they try to get too close.
Keep in mind, repellent sprays like this can also irritate your pets and need to be applied every few days (and right after it rains) to remain effective.
Epsom salts are another great choice of repellent. Raccoons don’t like the smell, and it’s beneficial to your garden. Just remember rain can wash the salts away, so they need to be reapplied.
Oddly enough, one of the easiest repellents to use on an infestation is a couple rags soaked in ammonia.
This chemical is what gives urine its smell, and tossing a rag full of it into their nest while the owner’s out foraging will often convince these fastidious critters that their nest has been soiled and there’s a good chance they’ll abandon it and move elsewhere.
Why You Should NEVER Kill a Raccoon
While it might seem like a good idea to use kill traps or poison, this is the worst possible solution for a raccoon problem.
Raccoons (and bats) are highly susceptible to rabies. This deadly disease can continue to thrive in a corpse for an incredibly long time, making a dead raccoon even more dangerous than a live one.
How to Keep Raccoons Away (Deter)
There are several methods that can help deter raccoons from visiting your property, many of which also work on other critters. These methods can be broken down into barriers and deterrents.
The first line of defense is to have a good fence. Installing a fence around your yard or garden that extends at least two feet underground can prevent a wide variety of digging critters from gaining entry. Chicken wire makes a great fence for the garden, and the wire can also be used to create a roof, preventing flying and climbing critters from gaining access.
Be warned that raccoons are excellent climbers, so the smoother your wall, the less chance they’ll simply scale it. Be sure to also trim any overhanging branches they might use to cross over a fence.
A good deterrent will scare away numerous critters. Naturally, the downside to using most deterrents against a raccoon is that they quickly realize the scare tactic is nothing more than that. Motion-activated devices, such as sprinklers (here’s a good one), lights, and radios do have some limited effect, as do predator urine granules.
A much better deterrent is to simply deprive them of things that make your yard look hospitable. Keep it clear of trash and pet food. Avoid leaving a source of water.
An outdoor dog is also a good deterrent, but be careful not to let the dog come into physical contact with the raccoon to avoid health risks.
Raccoons can present a number of health risks to you and your pets. These risks make it dangerous to try and handle a wild raccoon. The following are the most common transmittable threats.
This disease doesn’t affect humans, but can be fatal in pets. Symptoms include loss of appetite, fever, and a discharge from the nose and eyes. Both cats and dogs have a variant they’re most vulnerable to, but it can affect other critters as well.
Transmitted through urine by infected critters which may show no symptoms, leptospirosis can survive for weeks, infecting soil and water. This infection can create symptoms within four weeks of exposure.
As the symptoms can easily be mistaken for other illnesses, it isn’t easily self-diagnosed. A person suffering from leptospirosis mayu seemingly recover after three weeks, whether or not the infection is actually gone.
In cases where it remains, the person is at risk of a second phase. The second phase is far more severe and can lead to meningitis or failure of the liver or kidneys.
Raccoons are one of the common critters most susceptible to rabies. While there’s only been one recorded death from raccoon-transmitted rabies, this disease is almost always fatal if you wait for symptoms to show.
Signs of a rabid raccoon include aggressiveness, disorientation, unusual sounds, and excessive drool or foaming at the mouth.
Efforts have been made to vaccinate raccoons and other high-risk species using treated bait, but there’s no way of knowing whether that bandit digging in your trash is vaccinated.
These parasites breed in the intestines. A number of different medical conditions can arise from a roundworm infection, such as ascariasis and trichinosis. Each type of infection varies a bit in symptoms, and sometimes people feel no symptoms at all.
Salmonella is a bacteria that can be found in undercooked meat and poultry. An infection (known as salmonellosis) affects the intestinal tract.
Most people experience no symptoms during an infection, but some may experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, chills, vomiting, headache, bloody stool, nausea, or fever within 8 to 72 hours of exposure.
The symptoms tend to go away after a few days Salmonellosis is usually diagnosed under the umbrella name of gastroenteritis (AKA stomach flu) and is rarely serious. Those with compromised immune systems may have more severe reactions that will require medical attention.