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Human/Animal Bond

Raccoons make lousy pets. Really.
February 1, 2016 (published)
Ned Gentz, DVM, DACZM

Photo by David Seerveld
These kits spent the night before being released back into the wild.
You may think you would like a raccoon for a pet. Trust me, you would not. If you really, really want a pet raccoon, get it from a licensed breeder. I don’t know where any are but I know that they’re around. In most places it is illegal to keep a wild raccoon. Heck, in any number of places keeping any raccoon may be illegal, especially if you live in a rabies-endemic area like the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Speaking of rabies – and you always do when you’re talking about these guys - raccoons are the most common wildlife species to become infected with rabies. Rabies scares me a lot. Zombies scare me too, but rabies even more so. Raccoons also are susceptible to canine distemper as well as feline parvovirus, so captive raccoons should be vaccinated for these diseases. Some veterinarians might not agree to do this, however. Use of these vaccinations are what is referred to as off-label. What this means is that even though a raccoon may be vaccinated for rabies, if the raccoon bites somebody, the legal authorities will not consider it to be vaccinated and the raccoon will have to be euthanized and tested for rabies.

While we’re talking about raccoon health issues, let’s talk about the raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis. This parasite doesn’t bother the raccoon too much, but if this worm gets into other species, including people, it can wreak havoc. This evil worm likes to crawl around where it shouldn’t, like in brains. Badness ensues. Blindness and coma are just two symptoms seen in people; others include loss of muscle control, liver enlargement, and nausea. There’s more, but you get the idea.

I ran a wildlife hospital for four years and treated numerous raccoons for various medical complaints. Veterinarians who do not specialize in wildlife may spend an entire career without encountering a raccoon, which may be just as well. You may have to search for a veterinarian who will work with one.

Many veterinarians don't understand wildlife laws. They think that they need a special wildlife license to treat injured wildlife. This is not the case in almost all circumstances. In most instances I am aware of, ordinary veterinarians are allowed to treat sick or injured wildlife in their veterinary clinics until that animal is stable or well enough to be released into the care of a licensed wildlife rehabber. Now, if a veterinarian practices in an area where it is legal to have pet raccoons, then it would perfectly fine for that vet to treat, neuter, and vaccinate (albeit off-label) a pet raccoon. However, if a raccoon was taken out of the wild illegally, then that would be a whole other ball of wax. Most vets would not be willing to risk the loss of their veterinary license in getting involved in such a situation.

Veterinarians aren't the only ones who work with raccoons: so do nuisance wildlife control operators. They remove baby and adult raccoons from homes. One such operator is David Seerveld, who has a terrific blog about the wildlife he removes from homes. He takes the raccoons and returns them to a wildlife spot over 10 miles away so they cannot find their way back to that house.

Seems that many people ask him for a baby raccoon so they can have them as a pet – he is sometimes offered a lot of money for one, but he won't do it. That's because he also thinks they make lousy pets.

On his blog, Seerveld says:

"I handle a lot of baby raccoons that I get out of attics, and they are just about the cutest animal alive - cuter than kittens or puppies, and they make the most darling noises. Just look at it cuddling on my lap. Irresistible. Great then! Just the pet you're looking for.

"Until it suddenly and without warning bites your face off once it reaches six months old. Raccoons are wild animals. There's a reason they are not commonly made pets. Believe me, if they could be domesticated, they would be, because they are very pretty and smart animals, and they have distinct personalities and a lot of fun traits. But they are wild animals through and through. Once they hit sexual maturity at about six months of age, they are no longer gentle and cuddly. I've heard of many cases in which people keep pet raccoons and suddenly find themselves under attack without warning one day. Yes, there are exceptions, and some raccoons are simply more aggressive than others."

The typical reality of adult raccoons is a desire to chomp flesh.

Male raccoons are said to not reach full sexual maturity until they are around two years old, but they start the hormonal slide much earlier. In order to head off unwanted behavioral changes associated with sexual maturity - aggression, for instance - having a veterinarian perform sexual sterilization surgery well before this point would be a really good idea.

In captivity, raccoons also tend towards obesity, which can lead to various health issues. This situation should be avoided.

Raccoons are big biters. They are prone to biting whenever they feel threatened, so be prepared that this may happen, because it will. The more raccoons get used to being handled a lot from an early age, the more it will help make them more social and less likely to bite. But really, nothing is going to stop them from chomping down on flesh. Kind of like zombies.

It’s best to keep your new pet raccoon away from your kids and the neighbor kids too, because of that chomping flesh thing. Raccoons are mischievous, by which I mean they are troublemakers. They get into everything. It is best that they are not given free run in your house. Baby-proofing a house is child’s play (ha!) compared to trying to raccoon-proof one. Babies don't run up into cabinets.

The bottom line here is that you don’t really want a raccoon for a pet. Trust me on this one.


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