Raccoons are found in both rural and urban environments throughout the United States. They can be fascinating to watch, but their enterprising nature and extremely varied diet can bring them in conflict with humans when they raid trash cans, dumpsters, gardens, and/or outdoor pet food.
Common Conflicts with People
Raiding Garbage Cans: Secure cans so they can’t be tipped over, and make sure lids are locked in place. Raccoons can chew through bungee cords, so if you have a consistent wildlife/trash conflict, it’s worth it to invest in sturdy garbage cans with locking lids. If raccoons are used to finding food in your trashcans, it’ll take several nights of unsuccessful attempts until they get the message and move on to other food sources. A scent repellent can be used directly outside of the trashcans; just remember to reapply regularly.
Raiding Gardens: Raccoons eat a wide variety of food; crops like corn and grapes are often enjoyed by raccoons. These treats are often picked by raccoons just before they are ready for harvest, so anticipate this and plan accordingly! Use visual deterrents around the food you’d like to protect, such as bright motion-detector lights. Scent and taste deterrents can also be used, depending on what produce you are protecting.
Fruit trees can be protected with a three-foot-tall section of metal flashing around their trunks. Strands of electric wire can be added for particularly problematic areas.
Digging in Lawns: Raccoons dig in the lawn and/or roll back new sod as they hunt for grubs. In reality, raccoons are doing you a favor by eating the grubs; these beetle larvae often cause patches of grass to turn brown and die. Solving this problem requires solving the grub problem; visit your local garden center and ask about pesticide-free grub treatment.
To keep raccoons from disturbing sod, spray a 1:1 mix of children's shampoo and ammonia on the area, and pin down sod with landscape pins.
Disturbing Ponds: Raccoons love eating fish and may attempt to raid small backyard ponds that contain fish. Make sure there is adequate hiding space for the fish to retreat from raccoons (and other predators); a terra-cotta pipe can make a great hiding space. Shallower ponds are easier to raid; fish in ponds more than two-and-a-half feet deep typically have a better chance of evading predators.
Denning in Chimneys: Raccoons often make their dens in hollow trees or abandoned burrows, but in a more suburban environment, they may seek out chimneys to raise their young. If a raccoon is present in your chimney from April – September, assume it is a mother with her young. Very young babies cannot climb out of the chimney on their own, so it’s best to give the mother raccoon a few weeks to vacate on her own timeline. Make sure any fireplace openings into the room are blocked to avoid accidental visitors into your home!
It’s common for mother raccoons to change den sites during the nesting season, so it’s unlikely the raccoons will be present during the entire period of time it takes them to grow up (about five months). If you can’t wait a few weeks for the raccoons to leave, you can encourage the mother raccoon to make the move earlier by adding visual and scent deterrents to the fireplace. Cap the chimney after raccoons are gone to prevent future denning.
Nesting in Attic: Raccoons may use undisturbed attics as dens sites; if you have a raccoon in your attic, anywhere from April – September, it’s best to first determine if there are babies inside. Find the opening that the raccoon is using; this can be a hole as small as 2-1/2” x 4”. Put a single layer of newspaper over the opening at night, when the raccoon is out of the attic. If the raccoon breaks her way through the paper to get back into the attic, she may have babies in there.
It’s common for mother raccoons to change den sites during the nesting season, but you may use visual and audio deterrents to gently harass the mother raccoon so that she moves her babies. Once you are entirely certain that the whole family is gone, seal up your attic. If mother raccoons are sealed out of an attic with their babies inside, they will cause an extreme amount of destruction to enter again.
Accidentally Inside House: Accidental entries into a house may result from mothers denning with their young raccoons in an attic or chimney. Pet doors can be another source of entry; in this case, raccoons are usually attempting to eat pet food. If a raccoon gets into the main part of your house, try not to alarm the raccoon as you calmly open doors and windows. Close doors that would allow the raccoon to get deeper into the house. Quietly allow the raccoon to find its way out -- do not shout, try to scare or chase the raccoon, or lure it out with food. It’ll panic and tear up your house.
Out during the Day: Raccoons are nocturnal and typically rest during the day in their dens, but sometimes these animals are seen during the day. Simply seeing a raccoon out during the day is no cause for panic; while they prefer to forage at night, they may need to seek food during daylight hours, particularly after spells of bad weather. It’s also more common to see nursing mothers out looking for food during the day [their babies keep them busy at all hours of the day!], and young raccoons that are learning adult raccoon skills also may be out in daylight hours. While nocturnal animals may be out during the day because they are sick, this one behavior by itself is not enough to indicate illness.
Thorough exclusion is the only long-term, permanent solution to keep raccoons out of specific unwanted areas, visual, audio, and scent/taste deterrents can be useful short-term solutions to encourage raccoons to leave an area.
Visual: Use bright flashing lights in dark confined areas where you’d like to evict raccoons (e.g., chimneys, attics, etc). Motion detector lights can be useful in outdoor areas, though raccoons may adapt to this quickly.
Audio: Portable radios can be used in areas where you are trying to deter raccoons.
Scent/taste: Like many mammals, raccoons can be deterred by applying spicy sprays/pastes onto specific items. There are a few commercial products on the market, most of which contain various spicy peppers and/or oil of mustard. Homemade cayenne pepper sprays/pastes can also be used. Ammonia-soaked rags can also be helpful, though rags should be placed in a plastic bag with holes since direct exposure to the ammonia is not safe. Remember, with any scent/taste deterrent, repeated applications are necessary; the flavor/scent can quickly wear off, particularly after rain.
If You Find a Baby Raccoon
Baby raccoons are most commonly encountered when the mother raccoon is in the process of moving her young to a new den site. At this age, baby raccoons are about five to eight weeks old; they can walk short distances, but can’t climb well yet. Give the mother raccoon plenty of space to come and collect her young while she’s in the process of moving her brood!
If the baby raccoon is young and not that mobile, you can put the baby in a bucket or box lined with a warm towel and a supplemental heat source. Leave overnight and check back the next day. Do not feed the baby raccoon; a hungry baby will vocalize, which will get the attention of the mother raccoon.
If the baby is older and likely to wander off, put it on the ground with a towel and put a weighted basket over it. While this strategy doesn’t work for most wildlife species, raccoons can manipulate objects well, and the mother raccoon should be able to tip the basket over so she can remove her baby. Raccoons are nocturnal, so it’s more likely that reuniting with the mother will happen overnight.
Baby raccoons are weaned at about 14-15 weeks old and are independent at about five months of age.
If the healthy baby raccoon isn’t retrieved by the next day, or if you find an injured baby, or one with fly eggs on it [these look like small grains of rice], call a permitted wildlife rehabilitator.
Always wear gloves when handling young raccoons, even very tiny (eyes-closed) babies. Never come into direct contact with a raccoon.
Public Health Concerns
Raccoons can carry zoonotic diseases that are serious health risks to humans and pets:
Rabies: In Virginia, raccoons are a high-risk rabies species. There is no single set of indications that an animal may have rabies; since it is a neurological disease, rabies can manifest itself in many ways. While the stereotypical “furious form” (aggressive behavior, foaming at the mouth) is one manifestation of rabies, infected animals more commonly display the paralytic form of rabies, which is exhibited through lethargy, loss of balance, loss of fear of humans or other animals, and general depression. However, those same depressed signs can also indicate distemper (more common than rabies) or head trauma from an injury. It’s also important to note that a mammal may have rabies and not yet be exhibiting any symptoms. Never handle a raccoon of any age without wearing gloves.
Roundworm: Baylisacaris procyonis is a raccoon roundworm that can be spread to other animals, including humans. Infected raccoons shed eggs in their feces; the eggs are very resilient and cannot be killed with bleach or normal disinfectants. The roundworm can cause death or other neurological symptoms in humans and is very difficult to treat. Treat all raccoon feces as potentially infected; read more about this zoonotic disease on the CDC website.
Prevent pets from co-mingling with raccoons; outdoor food dishes should not be shared between wildlife and pets. There are several diseases raccoons and pets can transmit to one another, including rabies, canine and feline distemper, feline panleukopenia, and the Baylisascaris procyonis roundworm. Bring in pet dishes at night.
What NOT to Do
- Don’t come into direct contact with raccoons. If raccoons, even babies, are handled without gloves, bites and scratches may possibly occur, which will qualify as exposure. If the health department thinks someone has been exposed, they will require rabies testing of the raccoon, even if the animal is not showing symptoms.
- Don’t come into contact with raccoon feces. Wear gloves and a dust mask if cleaning an area where raccoons have been denning.
- Don’t keep the raccoon. In Virginia, it is illegal to keep raccoons as pets or to attempt to raise them yourself without a rehabilitation permit.