- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
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 tanuki in Japan, 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 date back hundreds of thousands of years—or more—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 indicate the raccoon dog may have first appeared during the Pleistocene era (between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago).
What does a raccoon dog look like?
Raccoon dogs have thick, long fur that ranges from black and brown to white and gray. 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 don’t get too close. Raccoon dogs have been linked to various diseases and coronaviruses over the years—and though it is still unknown, may have played a role in the COVID-19 outbreak.
Personality-wise, these critters have been described as “curious yet shy.” 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, birds of prey—and humans, of course. Raccoon dogs are farmed for their fur and meat (according to one report, over 14 million raccoon dog pelts were produced in China alone in 2014—a number that doesn’t factor in production in other regions, such as Europe where the animals are also farmed).
Raccoon dogs are omnivores and eat fish, frogs, birds, eggs, amphibians, reptiles, small invertebrates and insects, fruit, seeds, nuts, and berries.
Can you keep a raccoon dog as a pet?
It’s a bad idea, for many reasons. 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. But, if you were to keep one, there is the risk of contracting or spreading viruses and disease, given the animal’s suspected link to COVID-19.
There is the issue of quality of life. Raccoon dogs are wild animals—not domesticated pets—who require a lot of space. They would never be happy living in a house or an enclosed area, and few people beyond professional zookeepers are capable of properly providing for them.
Finally, raccoon dogs can quickly become invasive, as they have in Europe, if they escape or are released into wild environments where they did not originate. 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.”
We advise adopting a domesticated shelter pet that needs a home, over an animal more at home in the wild.
Have any other interesting facts for me?
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 care for raccoon dogs.
- 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. Many countries have outlawed fur farming, but they continue to be bred at fur farms throughout parts of Asia.
- Raccoon dogs are thought to hibernate. Well, kind of. It’s unusual behavior for a canid, but some raccoon dogs have been known to enter hibernation in the winter. 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.
- They’re a popular subject of Japanese folklore. For centuries the Japanese have associated raccoon dogs (or tanukis) with magical folklore. They are usually depicted with a giant scrotum, which represents good luck with money. In fact, many businesses place tanuki totems near their buildings in hopes of prosperity.