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Raccoons

Introduction

Raccoon1

The existence of wildlife in urban areas enriches our environment, bringing a little bit of nature to the bustle of the city. Abundant food and shelter and the absence of natural predators have allowed many wild animals to successfully adapt to urban life. We can hardly blame them for helping themselves to food that is readily accessible in garbage pails, gardens, composters and sheds.

If there is ample food and a place to live, removing the resident animal will just create a vacant territory for another one to move into. Preventive measures have proven to be less costly and less stressful for both wildlife and the homeowner in the long term.

Although human-wildlife conflicts can occur, a little understanding of the animals’ characteristics and needs will help us take a humane approach leading to a peaceful coexistence. Humane treatment of an animal involves compassion and respect, precludes cruelty and avoids pain, suffering or injury.

Wild animals should be treated with respect and understanding. Never corner or attempt to pick up any wild animal. They may bite when they feel threatened and they may have parasites or diseases that could be passed on to you or your pets. With a little understanding and patience, you will soon be enjoying the wild animals in your backyard!

Raccoon Characteristics

One of the most adaptable species of wildlife, raccoons are found throughout temperate North America and range as far south as South America. Raccoons are easily identified by their narrow mask-like faces with white patches above their eyes, and their bushy tails with alternating black and yellowish rings. They are about one metre long including the tail, and weigh from 7-22 kg. When conditions are favourable, they can live up to 10 or 13 years. They will produce one litter per year with an average of four or five kits.

Raccoons are opportunistic feeders and being truly omnivorous, will eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, insects, eggs, small birds and mammals. They are usually nocturnal although may occasionally be active in the daytime. In cold climates they will hibernate for a good portion of the winter. They are fairly sociable and generally not aggressive, unless threatened, protecting their young or during mating season. They are territorial with a range of up to five kilometres. Raccoons are strong and agile and therefore, very good climbers. Their long and slender digits make their feet look more like hands and provide them with remarkable dexterity.

Raccoons’ ability to adapt to different habitats, combined with intelligence and curiosity, have allowed them to become proficient city dwellers. This often brings them into conflict with homeowners as the animals seek food and shelter.

Raccoons and the Seasons

Life cycles in raccoons vary slightly, reflecting factors such as age, health, weather conditions, habitat, food supply and population density. A basic understanding of their yearly activities will help in formulating humane, effective prevention plans and dealing with existing problems.

Winter

As the weather gets colder, raccoons will seek out shelter to escape winter weather. During the winter months, juveniles born the previous year will leave the maternal den site and seek out their own dens. Raccoons mate during mid to late winter, usually between January and March, with a gestation period of approximately 63 days.

Adverse weather conditions, such as snow, severe cold, or a lack of food may cause raccoons to stay in their dens for three weeks or more. Homeowners should be aware of this behaviour when testing for the presence of raccoons and planning raccoon-proofing strategies. It is extremely important that all animals be locked out of the area, not in it. Animals locked in may cause damage to the home and may suffer a lingering death which is inhumane and will be very offensive for a long time and costly to have removed.

Spring

Between the months of March and June, homeowners should not attempt on their own to remove wildlife other than by trying the radio and lighting techniques explained in the next section. If a mother is locked out with the kits inside, she will do considerable damage trying to get to her kits. If the mother is trapped and taken away, the dependent kits will be left to starve and die in the den. Only when the mother and her kits have been seen coming outside can a homeowner begin to encourage them to leave and repair the entrance area.

Kits are born during this time and the mother will stay with them for up to three days without going outside. Their eyes remain closed until the age of three weeks and they will remain solely in the den site for approximately two months. During this time the mother will go outside on her own to find food. The homeowner may hear chittering noises. As the kits grow and develop, they may become noisier and they may be heard moving about.

After about 2 ½ months, they will slowly start to accompany the mother on her nightly excursions. The young will stay with their mother for nine months, learning necessary survival skills from her. Observe the kits coming out for a week or two and getting to the ground before starting any removal attempts. It may take the runt of the litter several days longer than its siblings to gain the strength to leave the den with the rest of the family.

At this time of year, raccoons may begin foraging in lawns looking for insect larvae.

Summer

The kits will start to regularly accompany their mother on nightly foraging excursions. The importance of making sure that all the animals are out of the den cannot be overemphasized.

During hot summer months when the temperature rises above 25 C, some attics and rooves will become too hot for comfort. Animals may then seek out cooler areas under decks, sheds, patios and other sheltered areas.

Fall

As the weather gets colder, raccoons will prepare for winter by seeking shelter and consuming extra food to store fat for the winter. They may continue to dig up lawns looking for insect larvae. Discourage this activity by using the methods described in the section on gardens and lawns.

During this season, from September to the beginning of November, raccoons can occasionally be encouraged to leave roofs, attics and chimneys using the noise and lighting method described under Problem Solving.

Raccoon-Proofing Buildings

Uncapped chimneys, openings into attics, rotting rooves and loose shingles are all invitations to raccoons seeking a place to den. Being good climbers, they will use nearby trees, television towers or down spouts to gain access onto a roof. Raccoons will also live in chimneys that are uncapped. If this happens, never light a fire in an attempt to smoke them out as this is inhumane and dangerous. There are a number of things a homeowner can do to discourage raccoons.

Outdoor, movement-activated security floodlights can startle raccoons when they light up. Another outdoor alternative is to hang 100 watt lights at 15 square metre intervals, or floodlighting. A low voltage battery- operated light that does not give off heat can be secured to a rafter in an attic. (Animals may chew the wires of non-battery lights.) However, this will not be effective if the animal can avoid the light source. Some raccoons may become accustomed to outside lights.

  • Make sure that all eaves are in good condition and that there are no weak areas or holes which would allow access to the attic.
  • Check that roof shingles are in good condition, replacing those which are curled, cracked, worn or missing.
  • Screen bathroom, stove and other vents and attic openings with heavy, rust-proof 1” X 1” wire mesh. (Avoid chicken wire as animals will tear the mesh and sometimes get caught in it.) Secure the wire with screws or nails, overlapping the openings by 5-6 cm on all sides.
  • Ensure that chimney caps are installed and securely fastened. Screen or cover window wells.
  • Annually remove debris from eavestroughs to prevent overflow or wood rot and check for damage from ice and snow.
  • Trim tree branches that overhang the house and remove unused TV towers.
  • Check for possible access to outbuildings and garages using the same methods as for the house.
  • Keep pet doors locked at night and keep pets indoors.

Note:
Homeowners should not attempt to complete these repairs on their own if conditions on the roof are hazardous or if they are uncomfortable with heights.

In built-up areas, it would be wise to check with neighbours before installing lights or using other deterrents which may bother other people.

Problem Solving

If raccoons have already set up residence in your house, it is important that they vacate the premises before you complete your raccoon-proofing operations. Not only would the animals die a cruel death of starvation and thirst if locked in, but you would be left with a rotting carcass which would smell and attract flies and maggots. Raccoons do not like loud noises or bright lights, so they may be encouraged to find other accommodation by simply placing a battery-operated radio played loudly in the area, or keeping the area brightly lit with battery- operated lights. Eliminate potential fire hazards of lights in enclosed areas by securing them so that they cannot be knocked over by animals.

Raccoons may be encouraged to move out of the attic, garage or other building by having someone visit them several times a day and shining a light towards the nesting area. This regular disturbance may encourage the mother to move to a quieter location.

Determine Where They Are Getting In

Begin by inspecting the roof to find all the entry holes and potential areas where animals could enter the roof, attic, overhang, chimney or under the deck. Once you think you have found the entry hole or holes, try to determine the species of animal you are dealing with. This can be done by placing a meat source (for example sardines) and a bit of peanut butter into the entry hole. Raccoons and skunks will eat both the meat and the peanut butter, whereas squirrels or mice will eat only the peanut butter. Check for raccoon evidence in the morning and squirrel evidence in the afternoon. Raccoon entrance holes can be about the size of a football. Squirrel entrance holes will be much smaller (about the size of a tennis ball), but squirrels will also use the larger holes.

Ensure That All Raccoons Have Left

This is especially important between late March and July when raccoons have their young. Separating a mother raccoon from her young will result in their slow and inhumane death. A mother separated from her young can do substantial damage trying to get to them. If the raccoon does have a family, the best course of action is to be patient and do nothing until the young are approximately 12 weeks of age. During adverse weather conditions and because of lack of food, raccoons may not leave the den site for three weeks or longer. This should be considered when determining the presence of raccoons.

Before closing the entry hole permanently, be sure you will be available over the next few days (or weeks in winter) to monitor for noises that indicate animals trapped inside. You should also do a food test to determine for sure that all the animals have left. Place a bit of peanut butter inside the hole so that only an animal inside could get it. Cover the hole with galvanized steel screening secured in a way that it can be removed to check the food test or if an animal is locked inside. (Do not use chicken wire as it can stretch and an animal could get its head stuck in it.) Check it every day and if it is untouched for several days, it has been successful. If the food is gone, indicating that an animal is still inside, open the entrance hole, allow time for it to leave and start again.

Composters

The use of composters is on the increase and they are very tempting to raccoons. Besides eating refuse, raccoons can become trapped in composters. To avoid this:

  • All composters should be 100% animal-proof or they will attract rats, as well as other animals.
  • Make sure that the lid is secure. Use a bungie cord or a heavy weight if necessary.
  • Use lighting suggestions to discourage all nocturnal animals.

Note:
If a raccoon does become trapped in the composter, make a ramp using a board long enough to extend from the bottom of the composter over the top. Leave the animal alone to allow it to escape. Do not reach in and try to assist the raccoon as they may bite when frightened.

Raccoons under Decks and Patios

In the summer when attics and rooves become hot, raccoons may seek cooler shelter under decks and patios. In most cases, there is no reason to disturb them. However, if they are causing damage or getting into conflicts with pets, you may want to encourage them to move out. To do this, secure the perimeter of the deck with galvanized steel screen in an ‘L’ shape, leaving an opening for the animals to exit. Use the radio, lighting and food test technique as described in the section on Problem Solving to monitor when the animals have left.

Do not attempt this in the spring months, when young are being born and need time to become mobile and leave the den.

Gardens and Lawns

Raccoons like many of the grubs and insects which live in lawns and gardens. Rooting for these insects can cause substantial damage. To discourage digging or rolling back sod:

  • Use a non-toxic animal repellent on lawns to discourage animal activity. The fall is the best time to do this due to the life cycle of many insect larvae.
  • Keep the area lit at night, using the methods previously outlined.
  • Rent electric livestock fencing and secure at levels of 10 cm and 20 cm around the perimeter of the lawn or garden. It should be no more than a 9 volt charge that will not hurt the animal, but will act as a deterrent. The fence should remain four to eight weeks to give the lawn or garden a chance to recover and break the animals’ pattern of foraging on it.
  • Cover ornamental fish ponds with a non-sagging wire mesh or boards during the night.

Feeding Raccoons

Although it is often tempting, never feed raccoons. Do not leave pet food and water bowls outside overnight.

Garbage:

Although city ravines and parks can provide shelter for raccoons, they frequently do not supply enough food for a large raccoon population. Urban areas compensate for this lack of natural food supply with an ample amount of garbage. Raccoons, with their intelligence and dexterity, are masters at getting at it. Once they find a good source of garbage, they will return to the site again and again. To discourage this:

  • Put garbage at the curb on the day of pick-up, not the night before.
  • On garbage cans use a tight-fitting lid that cannot come off when it is knocked over or place cans in a secure location such as a shed or garage.
  • Secure the lid with an elastic bungie cord looped from handle to handle across the top and put a heavy weight on the lid.
  • Prevent cans from being knocked over by securing them to something permanent.
  • Keep the area brightly lit to discourage all nocturnal animals. Intruder- activated floodlights may startle the animal when they light up, although animals will grow accustomed to them.
  • Ensure bird feeders are animal-proof and cannot spill onto the ground.

Live Trapping

Although live trapping and relocating has been widely used as a method of wildlife control, it can be inhumane as the animals may suffer severe injury and sometimes death in their attempts to escape. It is not a long-term solution. Most wild animals are territorial, so relocating them somewhere else will not only fail to solve local problems, but often creates new problems at the release site by upsetting the natural balance of existing populations. The resident raccoons may attack and sometimes kill relocated raccoons to defend their territory. Studies done by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources have shown that 60% of relocated raccoons do not survive. Relocation also facilitates the spread of disease from one area to another.

In addition to the target animal, a baited trap may attract other animals including domestic animals to the area. Trapping causes stress to the animals and often separates mothers from kits resulting in the agonizing death of dependent offspring. Even when an entire family is captured and relocated, the mother may abandon her young at the new site due to pressure to find food and care for her young.

Instead of removing them with traps, animals should be encouraged to leave on their own using the methods described in this factsheet. By using these passive methods the disturbance to the animals is minimized and unnecessary stress and suffering is avoided.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres

Wildlife rehabilitation centres provide care for injured and orphaned wildlife until the animals can be released back to the wild. They may also offer advice on addressing human-wildlife conflicts. These centres are generally non-profit or charitable organizations dedicated to helping wild animals in need.

Ask the local humane society or SPCA to recommend a wildlife rehabilitation centre in your area. Some provinces require wildlife rehabilitation centres to obtain permits, but in most cases they are unregulated, so care should be taken to ensure their credibility.

Commercial Wildlife Removal Companies

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies urges you to employ the methods described in this factsheet to help solve conflicts with wildlife. If, however, you have thoroughly pursued the options with patience but have failed and you feel you need to enlist the services of a commercial wildlife removal company, do some research first. Most companies advertise the humane removal of wildlife, but the wildlife removal industry in Canada is competitive and largely unregulated, so you should ask for previous work references and check with the humane society or SPCA and the Better Business Bureau regarding their credibility. Ask specific questions about the methods of removal to ensure the animals will be treated humanely. Make sure you have a firm agreement with the company about the methods used to remove the animals and a written guarantee on their work. You should pay only when you are satisfied with the work, not before.

Do not use companies that plan to trap and relocate the animals, as significant suffering can result if animals are relocated to another environment or if traps are left unattended. Also avoid companies that use poisons, gases, or chemicals. Instead seek companies that have experience and are committed to removing the animals humanely and simply letting them go on site. Ensure the company’s employees are professional and knowledgeable about the animals’ habits and behaviours.

Seek companies that offer repair work (or can recommend someone) as well as preventive maintenance as part of their service. This will keep your costs down and help prevent future conflicts with wildlife. Also look for a guarantee on the entire serviced area, rather than just the entry hole.

In Conclusion

Prevention of raccoon problems through good property maintenance is the only permanent solution. The removal of individual animals, without taking steps to eliminate access to denning sites and food sources, will just leave a vacant territory for another raccoon to inhabit. Raccoons in our cities can be entertaining to watch and give us a glimpse of nature at our doorstep. Please be respectful and patient with these animals when conflicts arise. Do not disturb them when they have young, and employ only the passive methods described in this factsheet to address problems.

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