It’s a surprisingly common question—is a raccoon dog actually a dog? Is it a raccoon? If you’re wondering what the heck these furry creatures are, you’re not alone. Many people are still puzzled about their exact lineage (and their name doesn’t exactly help), so let me clear things up for you a little.
Raccoon dogs, also known as mangut, tanuki or neoguri, are native to eastern Asia but have also been introduced to Europe. They’re neither dogs nor raccoons, although they do come from the canid family which includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Many people actually think that their closest comparison would be with foxes and badgers since they’re also nocturnal mammals who enjoy wooded, overgrown areas.
According to some research, raccoon dogs may date back millions of years, with scientists finding evidence of an ancestor of the raccoon dog in fossils found in late Pliocene sites in Italy, France, Hungary, and Romania. Other fossils of a larger ancestor have been found in Spain, France, and Hungary, and it seems that the Japanese dog first appeared during the Pleistocene era (between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago).
Raccoon dogs are generally between 18 to 28 inches long, and weigh up to 15 pounds. They have thick, long fur that ranges from brown and gray, to red and yellow (their colors tend to change with the seasons). They’re excellent at climbing trees because of their curved claws and dexterous front paws. Their long torsos, short legs, and small, pointed facial features give them a cute raccoon-like appearance—but I still wouldn’t get too close!
Personality-wise, these critters tend to be a little on the shy side, although they’re also curious about everything they encounter. Socially they’re a tight-knit crew, banding together to raise their young and help each other survive. Male raccoon dogs are known to be compassionate partners and are the ones who forage for food and take care of the females (especially when they’re pregnant). They, and the community, then raise the little ones together.
Their main predators include wolves, wild cats, foxes, and birds of prey, and they eat mainly fish, frogs, birds and their eggs, amphibians, reptiles, small invertebrates, fruit, seeds, nuts, and berries.
- They don’t bark. Instead of barking, raccoon dogs will make noises that sound more like high-pitched whines and whimpers (not sure if that’s any better!). These noises can be interpreted to mean a lot of things—from anger to happiness. They’re also inclined to growl if they’re feeling threatened.
- They have small canine teeth. Unlike many domesticated dogs, raccoon dogs have small canine teeth and flat molars, typical for animals that eat lots of plant food.
- They tend to avoid people. They’d rather be spending time with their other raccoon dog friends!
- There are only a few kinds of raccoon dogs (unlike the endless breeds of dogs you can find). There are 5 subspecies of raccoon dogs that can be found in eastern Asia and Europe—with the most well-known being the Japanese species called Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, or tanuki.
To make a long story short…you probably shouldn’t. According to Rebecca Snyder from the Oklahoma City Zoo you can get a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have them in the United States. Though USFWS classifies them as injurious wildlife, which means they’re so omnivorous that they adapt really well to a wide variety of environments and even have the ability to become an invasive species.
But just because you can have them, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a great idea. They look so adorable that people tend to forget that they’re actually wild animals who require a lot of space. They would never be happy living in a house or an enclosed area—they’re meant to wander, explore, and be free.
Plus, people who try to domesticate them often end up getting sick of them (since they aren’t pets), releasing them into the wild, and then eventually messing up the ecosystem. They tend to multiply rapidly and cause irreparable damage to the local wildlife.
In fact, according to The Guardian, “After being introduced to Russia and other European countries from East Asia 80 years ago, mainly to be hunted for their fur, the raccoon dog has spread far and wide. In Finland, where a million cubs are born annually, they prey on frogs and toads, with the southernmost part of the country greatly depleted.”
Raccoon dogs are fascinating creatures, and here are a few other tidbits about them that are sure to intrigue:
- Raccoon dogs aren’t common in the United States. In fact, in the US, Oklahoma City and Atlanta are the only two accredited zoos that have raccoon dogs in their collection.
- Sadly, they’ve often been bred for their pelts. Unfortunately, raccoon dogs have a long history of being inhumanely bred for their fur, which is used in fur coats and calligraphy brushes. Britain, Hungary, and Sweden have outlawed fur farming, but they continue to be bred at fur farms throughout China and Japan.
- Raccoon dogs hibernate. Well, kind of. Between November and April every year, they take a really long nap. If they didn’t store enough fat pre-hibernation (and they’re hungry), or if it’s a super warm day, they might get up and look around for some food. In order to do this, their body mass increases by 50 percent, their metabolism decreases by 25 percent, and they hunker down inside burrows and wait for warmer weather—usually cuddled up next to their partner (cute!).
- They’re a popular subject of Japanese folklore. For centuries the Japanese have associated raccoon dogs (or tanukis) with magical folklore. They are often referred to as “bake-danuk,” and are usually depicted with a giant scrotum, which represents good luck with money. In fact, many businesses place tanuki totems inside their building in hopes of prosperity.