Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

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Raccoons often find themselves in the middle of a love-hate relationship with the general public. Some people love them for their adorable appearance, but the emphasis is on the word some. Considered the “masked bandit” of the animal world, raccoons are notorious for their food thievery. This has made many people consider them a nuisance.

Eating Habits

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Raccoons are omnivores who feed off of plants and small animals, including mice. Over time, they have adapted to living near humans. Since they often find themselves in urban areas that lack fresh food, raccoons are often forced to become opportunistic eaters. As a result, you can often find these little critters rummaging through garbage cans.

One of the most puzzling things about raccoons is their food cleaning habits, resembling those of a germaphobe. When raccoons find themselves eating near a water source, they have a tendency to dunk their food in the water and roll it around with their paws. In fact, their actual scientific name is Procyon lotor, which literally means the “washing bear”. Food washing, however, is not common among animals. As a result, scientists began researching the real reason behind raccoons’ strange sanitary act.

Why Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

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From dry mouth to a saliva shortage, many have theorized many different  reasons for this habit, but there is only one idea that studies approve of. The answer lies in their paws; more specifically, the nerve endings in their paws. Raccoons wet their food to gather more sensory information. Moistening the food helps raccoons further understand what they are eating.  

Unlike humans, who can rely on their eyesight, raccoons depend on their touch to gather the majority of their information. When a raccoon touches an object, it is able to gather nearly two-thirds of that object’s sensory information. Their paws have four to five times more mechanoreceptors than most other mammals. As a result, raccoons are able hold, manipulate, and interpret objects on the same level as humans and other intelligent primates.

Why Water?

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Water plays a very important role in a raccoon’s sense of touch. Ultimately, it increases the receptiveness of the nerve endings in their paws. As a result, their tactile senses are substantially increased. In a 1986 study published in the Somatosensory Research journal, it was found that wetting the skin on their paws dramatically improved raccoon’s sensitivity. 

Raccoons use water similarly to the way humans use light. When light enters the human eye, the optical nerve response is increased. This makes things easier for humans to see. Similarly, when a raccoon touches water with their paw, their tactile nerves’ responsiveness improves. As a result, they are able to receive more information about their food. This is important because raccoons are known to eat a variety of foods, and some are not always safe. When scavenging for food in dangerous places, such as garbage cans, it is important for them to be able to identify what is and is not safe to eat.

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