Raccoons are highly intelligent and curious creatures, and these qualities have helped raccoons thrive in both wild and urban habitats. This intelligence and curiosity combined with a pair of highly dexterous hands also means that raccoons cause a lot of mischief in their search for food, and often find ways into houses, campers and coolers. The occasional banditry aside, the hands of a raccoon are incredible appendages and shape how raccoons interact with the world. The hands of a raccoon have many times more touch receptors than their feet and a lot of the processing space in a raccoon brain is dedicated to their hands. They often to use their hands to “see” in situations like foraging underwater, feeling under overhangs, and moving in the dark.
The fact that raccoons use their hands as both tools and as one of their most important sense organs has led to the myth that raccoons wash their food. Raccoons in captivity have been observed “washing” their food, which is actually repeated dipping and rolling of food items in water. This behavior has led to a widespread belief that raccoons wash their food before eating or that they need to soften their food. This behavior is not really washing and food preparation but an outlet for a raccoon’s constant need to use their hand to sense the world and look for food. In the wild raccoons are constantly dabbling in water and searching in nooks and crannies, and in the captivity this behavior finds an outlet in food “washing”. Some biologists have described the behavior more as feeling than washing, and this description is supported by the fact that raccoons often rub and roll their food even in dry enclosures and rub their hands together even when they are not holding anything.
The food washing myth has persisted because in the wild raccoons are constantly foraging in water and rolling and handling their prey, which often looks like they are washing their food. Raccoons do not have a very good grip because of the lack of opposable thumbs, and so they often hold items with two hands and frequently roll objects between their hands. If this behavior happens near water it also looks like washing.
The truth is that raccoons in the wild do not really wash their food in any way that we as humans think of washing. They constantly forage in the water and will often roll food items in their hands, but they are actually looking for food and working to get it into their mouth with much less concern about how clean it may be.
Elbroch, Mark and Kurt Rinehart. Behavior of North American Mammals. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. 374 pgs.
Lotze, J.-H. and S. Anderson. 1979. Procyon lotor. Mammalian Species 119:1-8.