San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide

Procyon lotor

Family: Procyonidae

Procyon comes from the Greek words pro meaning 'before,' and kyon meaning 'dog.' The term refers to the close relationship of raccoons to the primitive carnivore stock that evolved into dogs and bears. Lotor is Latin for 'washer,' and refers to the raccoon's habit of appearing to "wash" food before eating it.


The raccoon is a short, stout animal, with a pointed muzzle and small erect ears. Its legs are short and the feet are small. The forepaws in particular are long and slender. The raccoon's fur is thick and coarse, generally gray to black with brownish overtones above and light gray below. Its most easily recognized features are the black mask across its eyes, and the alternating black and gray strips that completely encircle its tail.

Size: The head and body length ranges from 46 to 71 cm (18-28 inches), with an additional 20-30 cm (8-12 inches) for the tail. A raccoon can weigh between 5.4 and 15.8 kg (12-35 pounds).

Range and Habitat

Range: The raccoon can be found throughout the United States, southern Canada, and Central and South America, with the exception of the desert regions. It survives easily in forests, marshes, prairies, cities and suburban areas.

Habitat: It's usually found along water courses or lakes that are near wooded areas or rock cliffs. A raccoon may den in caves or crevices along cliffs, in hollow trees, under rock piles, or even in unused buildings. While it may wander far from the water during the hunt, most of its life is spent near the water.

Natural History

Behavior: Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, but are sometimes seen during the day. They are perhaps the most omnivorous native carnivore in the Pacific region, with the possible exception of the black bear (Ingles 1965). Raccoons are adaptable and very curious animals. They will eat almost anything and use their keen sense of touch to search for food. They can manipulate objects easily with their hands, even prying off garbage can lids. Northern raccoons become dormant in winter but do not hibernate.

Reproduction: Raccoons may breed any time during the late fall into early spring. The gestation period lasts about two months, and the young are born between December and April. A litter may have two to seven young, with an average of four. The eyes open at about three weeks. Although the pups begin to forage and hunt with the mother within two months, she will care for them for almost a year.

Food: Raccoons feed mostly along streams and lakes, finding food under rocks and in the mud. Their diet includes crayfish, fish, lizards, frogs, small mammals, birds, eggs, various fruits, nuts and grains. Before eating, captive raccoons often appear to "wash" their food by dunking it in water, but the real reason for this behavior is not known.

Raccoon photo courtesy Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles, California Academy of Sciences-Ingles 8030 3192 4155 0029
Photo courtesy Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles, California Academy of Sciences

Raccoon tracks
Like the bear, a raccoon walks with its heel on the ground, making a fairly large track.

Text by Dr. Paisley Cato

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