Despite its name, a raccoon dog, a.k.a. Nyctereutes procyonoides, is neither a raccoon nor a dog, but it does belong to the canid family, which is a lineage that includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Five subspecies of raccoon dogs exist, including a Japanese species called Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, or tanuki. Here are some fascinating facts about the adorable omnivorous creatures that are found in forests, wetlands, farmlands, and urban areas.
1. ATLANTA IS HOME TO THE ONLY TANUKIS IN A U.S. ZOO.
Tanukis can be found all over Europe, Russia, China, Estonia, Japan, and Scandinavia, but not in North America. If you want to see one up close, you'll have to travel to Zoo Atlanta, which has been home to brothers Loki and Thor since they arrived from Italy in 2012. This summer, a litter of nine raccoon dogs made their debut at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, making the pups the first of their kind in Latin America.
2. THEY’RE UBIQUITOUS IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE.
Similar to the Maneki Neko cat, for centuries the Japanese have associated tanukis with magical folklore and luck. Referred to as "bake-danuk," these mythical tanukis are mischievous shapeshifters. One exaggerated feature is the tanuki’s giant scrotum, which represents good luck with money. In cartoons, paintings, and commercials, this part of the animal's anatomy is often illustrated as a pair of “money bags.” The enlarged testes represent good luck with money, more so than anything sexual. Tanuki totems are placed inside businesses to bring money.
3. SUPER MARIO BROS. 3 FEATURES A TANUKI.
If you remember the 1990 Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 3 (which originated in Japan), Mario can put on a Tanooki Suit and transform into a raccoon-like animal that’s able to fly. It turns out that Mario is one of those magical raccoon dogs.
4. SWEDEN DOESN’T LIKE TANUKIS BECAUSE THEY’RE AN INVASIVE SPECIES.
Not everybody thinks raccoon dogs are worth having around. Sure, some of the animals carry tapeworms and rabies and have mange, and they like to murder birds and muskrats and destroy gardens and vineyards (similar to actual raccoons). These annoyances have caught the ire of usually neutral Sweden. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency encourages people to hunt and kill the animal to reduce their population. Apparently, Denmark takes issue with the animals, too.
5. THEY CAN MAKE GOOD PETS.
Technically a raccoon dog is a wild animal—not domesticated—but a woman in England, June Lincoln, adopted a four-month-old one named Bandit, which turned out to be a perfect name for her wily pet. “He is a dog but his most close relative is a type of fox, so stealing is in his nature,” Lincoln told Daily Mail. "While he is generally well behaved, it has been impossible to teach him not to steal.” Bandit walks on a leash like a dog, and seems to get along with June’s two pet dogs.
6. RACCOON DOGS DATE BACK MILLIONS OF YEARS.
Scientists believe the n. donnezani is an ancestor of the raccoon dog because fossils were found in late Pliocene sites, in Italy, France, Hungary, and Romania. Excavated fossils indicate that a larger form named n. megamastoiodes appeared in Spain, France, and Hungary in early Pleistocene. According to fossil deposits found in Tochigi Prefecture in Japan, the Japanese dog first appeared during the Pleistocene era (between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago), and the n. viverrinus nipponicus appeared mid-Pleistocene.
7. THEY ARE BRUTALLY SLAUGHTERED FOR THEIR PELTS, AND SOLD AS “FAUX FUR”.
Unfortunately, the animals are inhumanely bred for their fur, which is used in fur coats and calligraphy brushes. According to PETA, “China supplies more than half of the finished fur garments imported for sale in the United States.” Britain, Hungary, and Sweden have outlawed fur farming, but the raccoon dog and other furry animals are bred at fur farms throughout China and Japan, and reports have shown the animals are sometimes skinned alive. (You can sign a petition to stop these heinous acts.)
The Humane Society petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to have them include raccoon dogs as part of the Dog and Cat Protection Act, but in 2014 the Commission ruled the animals should be labeled Asiatic raccoons, not dogs.
Also in 2014, Kohl’s came under fire for advertising faux fur on jackets that actually contained real raccoon dog fur. A similar thing happened in 2006 when Macy’s sold Sean John jackets made from raccoon dog fur. The lesson being that just because something’s marked “faux fur” doesn't necessarily mean it's not real animal fur.
8. THEY’RE THE ONLY CANID THAT HIBERNATES IN WINTER.
Between November and April every year, the animals take a long nap, but they don’t sleep too deeply. If they didn’t store enough fat pre-hibernation and if an unseasonably warm day occurs, they may wake up and forage for food. Before they hibernate, though, their body mass increases by 50 percent so they can store the fat. In the southern hemispheres, the animals don’t hibernate as frequently. (Now imagine a pair of raccoon dogs curled up and snoozing together.)
9. THE JAPANESE CITY OF KŌKA SHOWCASES TANUKI STATUES.
In 2004, Kōka absorbed the city of Shigaraki, which in the 12th century was one of Japan’s six kiln cities. Today, Tanuki statues abound all over town, including in front of bars, parks, and street corners. Over 60 years ago an emperor visited the town, so the townspeople spruced up the city by creating these statues as a sort of welcome. The tradition stuck, and the more modern Shigaraki ware tanuki statues are still on display: a rotund animal wearing a straw hat, holding a sake flask, and propped up by its giant testicles.
10. RACCOON DOGS DO NOT BARK.
Instead of barking like a dog, raccoon dogs give off a high-pitched whine or whimper, which can be interpreted as either submissive or friendly behavior. But when the animals feel threatened, they growl at each other. Unlike dogs, they don’t wag their tails, but they do use their olfactory senses to sniff for food.
11. MALE RACCOON DOGS SUPPORT THE FEMALES.
Raccoon dogs are stronger in pairs, so they band together to raise their young. The male forages for food and brings his findings to his pregnant mate. Once the pups are born, the male helps the female raise them. The pups get weaned after 40 days, and they’re able to take care of themselves around the four-month mark.
12. A RARE WHITE TANUKI WAS RECENTLY DISCOVERED.
In 2013, an all-white tanuki with blue eyes was found on a farm in Japan, caught in a trap intended for another animal. Because it’s white, the Japanese think it's good luck. A wildlife instructor thought the tanuki’s snow white coat was inherited and not caused by albinism.