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What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. December 1, 2019
What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts

Are they dogs? Are they raccoons? Are they a hybrid of the two species? As the name suggests, raccoon dogs appear to be a combination of the two. But are they really? The raccoon dog, also known as the mangut or tanuki, raises all kinds of questions. You may have seen a picture of a tanuki and thought it looked like a slightly overweight raccoon, but heard it was called a dog. Or may be you heard someone talking about keeping a raccoon dog as a pet.

So, if you find yourself wondering “what is a raccoon dog?”, AnimalWised is here to give you a complete answer. Keep reading to find out about the origins of these fascinating and unique animals. You will also discover several interesting facts about the raccoon dog - what they eat, where they live and why they are considered an invasive species in some countries. Finally, we explain why it is not a good idea to have a raccoon dog pet.

What is a raccoon dog?

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is a wild animal belonging to the Canidae family. The raccoon dog is therefore a dog, rather than a raccoon. Despite their outward resemblance to raccoons, these animals are genetically related to domestic dogs, foxes and wolves, and are considered a species of wild dog. Their raccoon-like appearance has given them a somewhat confusing name in English and other languages, but raccoon dogs are not actually related in any way to raccoons (Procyon lotor).

This animal is a basal or ancestral species, which means they have remained relatively unchanged since they first diverged form other canid species. They are the only extant species of the Nyctereutes genus, and there are six recognized subspecies of raccoon dog across Asia and Europe.

Where is the raccoon dog from?

Raccoon dogs are native to Japan, which is why they are often called Japanese raccoon dogs, or referred to by their name in Japanese, ‘tanuki’. The exact time the species emerged in Japan is debated, but the direct ancestors of present day Japanese raccoon dogs are believed to have been isolated on the islands about 12,000 years ago[1].

Raccoon dogs became popular animals in Japan around the 18th century. This was when the tanuki became an icon of the country, and began to be considered a symbol of good fortune. Tanuki are an important part of Japanese folklore, and there are several legends and stories around the Japanese raccoon dog.

The raccoon dog is also native to mainland southeast Asia, where it is found in parts of China, Korea and Vietnam. Southeast Russia, eastern Siberia and Mongolia - where the raccoon dog is called ‘mangut’ - are also considered to be part of their native territory. Recent studies have suggested that the Japanese raccoon dog be classified as a separate species from the mainland subspecies on the basis of chromosomal differences[2].

During the early to mid 20th century, raccoon dogs were introduced, through the Soviet Union, into Eastern and Northern Europe. This was due to the popularity of their fur, which was highly appreciated, even until a few decades ago. Raccoon dog farms were created in former Soviet Union territories in Asia and Europe, from where some raccoon dogs were deliberately released into the wild while others escaped captivity.

These animals spread fast from the places where they were introduced, thanks to their resistance, adaptability and ability to withstand extreme low temperatures. Raccoon dogs can currently be found in many parts of Europe, including countries such as France, Denmark or Germany, where they are often considered an invasive species. we will look further into this below. Today, Finland has the highest population of raccoon dogs outside their native territory.

If you are interested domestic dog breeds from Asia, here is a list of native Asian dog breeds.

What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts - Where is the raccoon dog from?

Raccoon dog facts

The raccoon dog is a very peculiar animal, not only because of its deceptive looks, but also because of its unique habits and behavior. Here are some facts about the raccoon dog and answers the questions you may have about this unusual canid species:

Where do raccoon dogs live?

In the country where they are most common, Japan, the raccoon dog inhabits forests, mountains and rural areas of the islands. They can sometimes be found in the outskirts of cities or in urban habitats with little forest cover, much like the unrelated raccoon. In the places where they have been introduced, raccoon dogs inhabit moist forests and meadows, staying close to sources of water. They have been seen to escape into water when being chased.

Raccoon dogs are known for their ability to withstand very low temperatures and high snowfall. At the northern end of their range, in Finland for example, they can be found in places where the annual average temperature is just above 0ºC.

What do raccoon dogs eat?

Raccoon dogs are omnivorous animals, and vary their diet according to season. In addition, they are opportunistic generalists, so they usually get their food from almost any source that is available to them. They often eat small rodents, insects and reptiles such as toads and occasionally prey on waterfowl and freshwater fish. They are also known to feed on carrion and rubbish. In summer and autumn they eat more berries, fruit and sometimes cereals or other agricultural produce.

What do raccoon dogs look like?

As we have explained, raccoon dogs are not genetically related to the raccoon family, although they share an uncanny resemblance. Both have a black facial mask and pointed muzzle, as well as yellowish-brown to gray fur. Albino tanuki have been recorded[3], although albinism is rare among raccoon dogs.

The similarities between raccoon dogs and raccoons can be explained by the convergent evolution, which is when two unrelated species evolve similar traits by adapting to the demands of similar niche habitats. One feature that distinguishes them, however, are their canid-like paws, which look nothing like the raccoon's five toes.

Raccoon dogs are medium sized, weighing between 4 to 9 kilograms. They have two two layers of fur, with a short and bushy undercoat, and a long, dense outer coat. Raccoon dogs change in appearance between summer and winter. Before winter sets in, they double their weight and grow thick fur, which protects them from the cold and gives them a very round appearance. By summer, their coat thins and they go back to their previous weight.

Curious habits: hibernation and monogamy

An interesting fact about the raccoon dog is that it is the only canid species that hibernates. Unusually for a hibernating species, however, its body temperature does not drop. The accumulation of fat reserves during summer and autumn helps them keep their temperature constant and withstand even the coldest winters.

Another unique feature of the raccoon dog is that it is monogamous. This means that males and females form pairs for life. They share a range, and move together throughout the year, as well as feeding and foraging together. In addition, male and female raccoon dogs raise their young together, taking turns foraging and ‘babysitting’[1].

What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts - Raccoon dog facts

Are raccoon dogs dangerous?

Raccoon dogs are usually harmless and are not known to attack humans. However, being wild animals they tend to be cautious and fearful, running away or hiding from humans and other possible predators. If they feel threatened, it may be possible for raccoon dogs to snarl or exhibit what appears to be aggressive behavior[4]. It is in fact dangerous for them to travel through urban areas, since in the face of possible dangers, such as cars, they remain petrified, often succumbing to traffic accidents.

The raccoon dog as an invasive species

Due to their adaptability and opportunistic feeding habits, raccoon dogs can often become invasive species. They have recently been classified as such by the European Union[5], and are listed as ‘injurious wildlife’ according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service[6]. The biological characteristics of the raccoon dog also make it an ideal host for several types of parasites and viruses, which is why it can be considered dangerous to human health in regions where it thrives in high numbers.

Raccoon dogs can potentially transmit a number of deadly zoonotic diseases to domestic animals or to humans. They are known to carry 35 endoparasites, plus ectoparasites, bacteria and viruses. Raccoon dogs are a key carrier of rabies and scabies (mange) in Europe, both of which can easily infect domesticated animals. They also act as vectors for parasites such as Trichinella spp or Echinococcus multilocularis, a dangerous tapeworm which can infect humans as well[7]. This does not mean that raccoon dogs have to be eliminated wherever they are found, but that their populations need to be kept in check in countries where they are not a native species.

Can you keep a raccoon dog as a pet?

While raccoon dogs can be adorable-looking, they are not meant to be domesticated or made to live in our homes. As we have explained, raccoon dogs are a wild species, and have several problems associated with them. As a potential invasive species, raccoon dogs that escape captivity or are deliberately released into the wild can wreck havoc on native species.

In addition, although some raccoon dogs are kept in captivity - in zoos for example - they are not well adapted to life in within four walls. Raccoon dogs have lived close to humans for centuries, and have never been successfully domesticated. Furthermore, they have proved wily escape artists, and it is best for them to live out their lives in in the wild rather than in forced captivity.

Furthermore, it is illegal to breed, keep or bring in raccoon dogs in many countries, as they are often listed as an invasive species. Even where it may be legal we recommend that do not keep a raccoon dog as a pet. Organizations such as the RSPCA also strong recommend against keeping raccoon dogs as pets[8].

What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts - Can you keep a raccoon dog as a pet?

If you want to read similar articles to What is a Raccoon Dog? - History and Facts, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

References
  1. Kauhala, K. & Saeki, M. (2004). Raccoon dogs: Finish and Japanese raccoon dogs - on the road to speciation? In D. W. MacDowell & C. Sillero-Zubiri (Eds.) The biology and conservation of wild canids (pp. 217-226). Oxford University Press.
  2. Nie, W., et al. (2003). Comparative chromosome painting defines the karyotypic relationships among the domestic dog, Chinese raccoon dog and Japanese raccoon dog. Chromosome Research, 11(8).
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FB%3ACHRO.0000005760.03266.29
  3. Japan Times. (2013). Rare white raccoon dog caught. Retrieved from
    https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/10/18/national/rare-white-raccoon-dog-caught/#.XeUo15NKjIV
  4. Gutman, R. (2019). The care and keeping of raccoon dogs. Retrieved from
    https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/06/the-care-and-keeping-of-raccoon-dogs/590800/
  5. IUCN. (n.d.). EU Regulation on invasive alien species. Retrieved from
    https://www.iucn.org/theme/species/our-work/invasive-species/eu-regulation-invasive-alien-species
  6. FWS. (2019). Summary of Species Currently Listed as Injurious Wildlife under the Lacey Act (18 U.S.C. 42). Retrieved from
    https://www.fws.gov/
Bibliography

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