Nov 13 2017

Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets

raccoon-AesopsAnimal intelligence is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces researchers to think carefully about what intelligence is. The comparison might also provide a window into what constitutes human intelligence in particular.

There is no question that humans have intellectual capabilities that no other species has. However, some animals are smarter in certain ways than you may imagine. Certain birds, like corvids (jays and crows) have demonstrated significant problem-solving capability, for example. Researchers are also finding that raccoons may be even smarter than we suspected.

One paradigm of animal intelligence research is known as the Aesop’s Fable test, based on the the story of the thirsty crow. In this tale a thirsty crow came upon a tall pitcher with water at the bottom, but it could not reach down the long neck to the water. So it dropped stones in the pitcher to raise the water level until it could reach. This behavior demonstrates creative problem-solving and some basic understanding of cause and effect. Corvids have the ability to pass this test – they can figure out how to use objects to raise the water level to gain access to water or food.

A recent study performed the same test on raccoons. They were given access to a long tube with marshmallows floating lower down, too low for them to reach. First they were shown how dropping stones would raise the water level. Two of eight raccoons tests were then able to use this effect to gain access to the marshmallows. Statistically this is not as good a performance as corvids, but at least some raccoons are smart enough to pass the test.

One additional raccoon gained access to the marshmallows, however. They figured out how to grip the top of the tube and then rock back and forth to knock the tube over. The researchers had specifically designed the tube so it could not be knocked over, but the raccoons essentially broke the apparatus. This is interesting because it shows that animals may have particular skills or predilections that they will use to their advantage. Knocking over the tube was a very “raccoon” solution.

The researchers also went further. In a follow up experiment they exposed the raccoons to the same setup and gave them access to floating and sinking balls. The sinking balls would raise the water level, while the floating ones were “non-functional” – or so the researchers thought. Again the two smart raccoons performed well, and they figured out that by dropping floating balls on the water they could then push them down, splashing water and marshmallow up along the sides of the tube, and thereby gaining access to the food. One raccoon figured out how to spin the floating ball to bring up a marshmallow clinging to it.

So some of the raccoons solved the test, but not in the way the researchers intended. They demonstrated creative problem solving.

Other researchers are interested in how raccoons are adapting to human civilization. Most people in rural or suburban areas will have experience with raccoons. Raccoons also live in cities, but you may be less likely to see them.  They have learned that humans are a great source of food, if you can figure out how to break into their containers. Raccoons are also fairly dexterous, and can break into most things if there is food to be had.

Researchers have compared urban and rural raccoons, and found that urban raccoons have better trash-can opening skills. When confronted with unfamiliar containers, they are more confident and successful in figuring out how to get passed any obstacles. When tracked with GPS city raccoons can be seen avoiding high-traffic streets, and taking safer paths to their destination.

Two questions remain – is the increased intelligence of city raccoons only a result of learning, or is there some evolution going on. Raccoon populations have increased significantly in the passed 80 years, and they are increasingly moving into human-occupied areas, including cities. This suggests that they are adapting to human civilization.

This phenomenon may be similar to what is believed to have happened with dogs. They started living on the edge of human populations, taking advantage of the scraps humans leave behind. Those better able to interact with the humans had a survival advantage. In this way dogs may have already been partly domesticated before humans started breeding them.

So, are raccoons adapting to humans in the same way? Are they becoming not only more clever, but domesticated? If so, how long will this process take? Further, will raccoons split into two species, the wild raccoon and the domesticated raccoon, similar to wolves and dogs?

It seems likely that raccoons will respond to the massively changing environment represented by human civilization. They already seem to be flourishing and adapting. The question is, what niche will they find? They will not necessarily take the same path as dogs or cats. Perhaps they will just become better thieves, increasing not only their cleverness but their stealth.

We may have a clue to the future of raccoon in modern day experience with raccoons as exotic pets. Because they can be adorable, some people may think it would be cool to have a raccoon pet, but veterinarians warn that they make terrible pets.

First, they need constant supervision. They are very good at destroying things, and if you ever left them alone in your house they would cause significant damage. Caging them is not an option as it is cruel to cage a wild animal and that will just stress them out. Raccoons respond to stress by biting. They also cannot be house-trained, and so will relieve themselves anywhere. Essentially, they would be nightmare pets.

But what if they were truly domesticated? Are these inconvenient behaviors part of being wild, or are they just core to being a raccoon? Is getting into trouble and destroying things part of the raccoon personality that would not be solved simply by domesticating them?

It is interesting to think about the future of raccoons. They are clearly one species doing well in the increasingly urbanized world. They are smart and dexterous, do not really fear humans, and are usually not dangerous (unless they have rabies or you provoke them into biting you). How far with their adaptation go? Will we see a future of super smart or fully domesticated raccoons? It’s not unlikely.

22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets”

  1. Nareed says:

    It might be worth it to repeat the Russian experiment to domesticate foxes using raccoons.

    I’ve no doubt cats and dogs are the smartest animals. They figured out how to use humans as tools 🙂

  2. BBBlue says:

    For those not familiar with the Siberian silver fox experiment, this Talk Nerdy episode provides fascinating back-story. Racoon coats anyone?

  3. Art Eternal says:

    Our raccoons live on the local urban farmland near a forested area. Some folks in the surrounding counties enjoy playing with them as dogs, trying to bathe them or even clip their nails. They are fascinating because they are wild, not leashed animals They run through bushes or get up on fences in small packs. I caught a friendly raccoon one summer by simply spraying my garden hose on bushes so it would run into a travel cage. The Ph.Ds in laboratories miss the true intelligent behaviors which we see in the hood.

  4. jimben says:

    Maybe there’s a way we can behavior-mod them into doing work for us, like picking up trash in exchange for a reward.

  5. Domestication does not equal desirability. Belyayev’s foxes have highly pungent urine and will scent mark their territory if residing inside your lovely home. Their compulsion to dig is greater than that of dogs. They retain certain fox characteristics. Whether raccoon-ness can be domesticated out of raccoons is unknown. Given the huge number of unwanted cats and dogs, we’re deceiving ourselves if we think humans are up to the task of treating with kindness animals that will be even more challenging to do right by. Raccoons, be careful of what you ask for.

  6. Kawarthajon says:

    I really question whether there is any truth to the claim that city racoons are smarter than country raccoons because all of the tests they use relate to solving problems in an urban environment (i.e. how to open a garbage can). Very anthropomorphic imho. Let’s test the urban raccoons with forest-based problems (like how to find grubs, frogs and other small creatures to eat, while avoiding feral cats, bears and coyotes/wolves) and see how well they do.

    To include my personal, unscientific anecdote, I live in a rural area and I can tell you that I have been up against some extremely smart and aggressive raccoons in trying to prevent them from raiding my composter/garbage cans. Let’s just say that 3/4 inch pressure treated, eye bolts, plywood and galvanized steel chains were required. You wouldn’t want to pet the local critters – they’re much more aggressive, which is probably because they have to fend off so many other predators and similar omnivores to carve out a small link in the food chain.

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    “They figured out how to use humans as tools”

    You missed a good double entendre there:
    “They figured out that humans are tools”

  8. BillyJoe7 says:

    …BTW, I think those raccoons have left evidence of their destructive tendencies all over SN’s post 😀

  9. hardnose says:

    “Will we see a future of super smart or fully domesticated raccoons? It’s not unlikely.”

    There is no animal that has become “super smart” because of domestication. Raccoons will still have the same brain no matter how much they learn about getting our food.

    We have never seen any evidence that intelligence increases because of adaptation to the environment. You are assuming this will happen with raccoons, even though it has never been observed with any other species.

    When dogs are bred for greater intelligence, their intelligence always remains within the species’ potential.

    In general, animals of many species tend to be much smarter than it was assumed before scientists studied them. But we have not seen any species become smarter because it evolved a more complex brain through adaptation and natural selection.

  10. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] We have never seen any evidence that intelligence increases because of adaptation to the environment.

    You are the least curious person I have yet to encounter…

  11. hardnose says:

    And you think that shows intelligence increased because of adaptation and natural selection? You are the least logical person I have yet to encounter.

  12. bachfiend says:


    Provide one example of a species being more intelligent than necessary for survival, and how you’d know that this is the case.

    You seem to be asserting that intelligence exists for its own sake.

  13. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] And you think that shows intelligence increased because of adaptation and natural selection?

    Yup. Unequivocally. Beyond a doubt. The brains of species have adapted in response to environmental pressure.

    You said there was no evidence. There it is. There’s the evidence you asked for.

    So, supporting the theory of evolution: ALL THE EVIDENCE.

    Supporting the hardnose crackpot hypothesis: NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER.

    You will never see one species become a different species with radically different cognitive abilities. That is not how evolution works. No one claims that is how it works. Anyone who thinks that does not understand evolutionary theory. You will never see a vastly more intelligent dog. Thousands of years from now there may be a descendant of dogs with different cognitive abilities, but the line from here to that species would be a gradient. What you will see are small changes in brain structure over many, many generations, which is exactly what the abundant evidence describes.

  14. dreamlander says:

    Raccoons definitely do not make good pets. When we were kids my cousins took two of them into their house when they were babies. They tore their house up for over a year. One time I remember locking them in the bathroom while we left for a short while. We came back to a flooded house. They had stuffed the drain with toilet paper and turned on the bath water.

    They also became very defensive of my cousins. When we were wrestling sometimes they would come out of no where and claw or bite you.

    They lived by the railroad tracks and one of them ended up getting ran over by the train. After that the other one just left.

    So yeah, not great pets unless you really don’t care about your house.

  15. Nareed says:

    The fox domestication experiment is about evolution and genetics, not making new pets. But foxes and dogs are rather closely related. Raccoons are not related to canids, therefore it would be interesting to see how far they can be selectively bred to socialize with humans, and how such socialization will be like.

    In the past we’ve domesticated animals that we found some kind of value in. Dogs aided in hunting, cats controlled small pests, cows provide meat, milk and hides, horses provide transportation, etc. what could raccoons do? In our era, being pets would be enough. whether they can be desirable pets is a different matter.

  16. Art Eternal says:

    I do agree raccoons conduct raids on the large green plastic garbage cans we use. They pop-up in the cans and always knock them over. But remember raccoon are nocturnal. Local Garbage collection is in the daytime.

  17. kasyx111 says:

    I’m glad someone told me that raccoons make bad pets. I was searching Amazon for the “Raccoon Love Kit” which includes a metal litter box and some Raccoon Chow.

    I remember when Irene Pepperberg posted her scientific paper on the intelligence of African Grey Parrots. The pet market for them boomed. Once importing them was banned then the captive breeding market boomed. Now there are hundreds of unwanted parrots as a result and they are endangered in their natural habitat.

    Oddly enough, they make bad pets for mostly the same reasons. They bite owners, make a lot of noise and poop wherever they want. (and they fly) Additionally they destroy their own homes with non-stop chewing and then get bored and pluck out all their own feathers.

    I’m calling you out Mr. Novella. In a few years when Raccoons are endangered and there are Raccoon Sanctuaries and Rescues to deal with all these bonded-to-people abandoned pet raccoons this will be on your head. (sarcasm)

  18. Although not the purpose of the experiment, in order to raise funds the domesticated foxes have been sold as pets by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk. Lyudmila Trut felt this could lead to “interesting, if informal, experiments” and the further development of the species. As it stands these animals seem best suited to living in a kennel situation to get around their smell.

    Raccoons also have strong smelling urine which may limit their indoor appeal. Being primarily nocturnal may or may not be an obstacle. The domestic cat adapts (if waking you up in the middle of the night by horsing around is not too much a bother), the raccoon may be able to do likewise. However, if we were to start over with the house cat, I think a diurnal feline species would be a better choice as progenitor from which to create a pet.

  19. cloudskimmer says:

    I had pet raccoons when I was in my teens. It’s no longer allowed in my state, and I agree with that, since I now believe that wild animals should remain wild. it is a misconception that they urinate and defecate anywhere; they are quite meticulous and will use a litter box. They don’t urinate in the house. When raised from a young kit, females remain affectionate into adulthood, but males can be cantankerous, particularly when protecting a mate, and they cannot be near young kits, even their own.

    Some animals are capable of domestication, but others seem to lack that adaptation. The Siberian Fox project is beginning to explore the genetics of this, but little is known now. Horses are domesticable, but zebras aren’t, regardless of the effort expended. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, and while they live closely with humans, this doesn’t mean they will become domesticated, just as coyotes, despite their being closely related to dogs, have not become tamed. It takes more than just living nearby to create a domesticated animal. After all, wild rats are still skulking in the shadows, despite years of living with humans.

  20. SteveA says:

    cloudskimmer: “It takes more than just living nearby to create a domesticated animal. After all, wild rats are still skulking in the shadows, despite years of living with humans.”

    Yes, but rats and mice have always been unwelcome guests who consume resources without offering anything in return. Cats and dogs provide a number of useful services.

    I’m guessing the first wild cat was attracted to the first human habitation because of the stored food-stuffs that were attracting prey (rodents). The humans noticed the fact that cats were keeping down the pests and encouraged them to hang around (or at least didn’t try to kill and eat them).

    In successive generations it was the cat offspring who were the most comfortable in human company who got the best access to those delicious mice (and a warm, dry place to sleep).

    The fact that kittens and puppies look cute probably also played a part.

  21. BillyJoe7 says:

    Who said raccoons can’t be domesticated?

  22. RC says:

    @Cloudskimmer –

    Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel spends a lot of time (and pages) on the discussion of why particular animals were domesticated, and why others weren’t.

    Zebras aren’t really comparable to horses – they’re much closer to Donkeys – and donkeys (onagers), which also originated in Africa, were domesticated. Zebras are flightier, more likely to react violently (although donkeys can be pretty nasty), and more likely to stress themselves to death. Zebras didn’t get domesticated because Donkeys covered all the same roles, and were easier – not because they couldn’t be.

    People have trained zebras to pull carts, carry riders, etc – all that’s left after that is several hundred generations of selection for desirable traits – and you’d end up with a striped equivalent of the modern donkey. IE, its an enormous waste of time and resources for almost no gain. Possible, but not viable.

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