Mental Floss

11 Surprising Facts About Raccoon Dogs

Garin Pirnia
Raccoon dogs are neither raccoons nor dogs, discuss.
Raccoon dogs are neither raccoons nor dogs, discuss. / sduben/iStock via Getty Images

Despite its name, a raccoon dog is neither a raccoon nor a dog, but it does belong to the canid family, the lineage that includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Here are some fascinating facts about the adorable omnivorous creatures that are found in forests, wetlands, farmlands, and urban areas from Sweden to Japan.

1. There are two species and four subspecies of raccoon dogs.

Raccoon dogs are native to Asia and are classified into two species. Nyctereutes viverrinus, the Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki, is endemic to Japan. Nyctereutes procyonoides, or common raccoon dog, is further classified into four subspecies: N. p. procyonoides is native to China; N. p. koreensis lives in North and South Korea; N. p. orestes is found in northern Vietnam and southeastern China; and N. p. ussuriensis is native to Russia but is now an invasive species in northern Europe.

2. Tanukis are popular in Japanese folklore.

For centuries, Japanese people 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. Tanukis are an invasive species in Europe.

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. Raccoon dog lineage goes back hundreds of thousands of years.

Scientists believe the extinct N. donnezani is an ancestor of the modern raccoon dog from fossils 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 the 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).

6. Raccoon dog pelts are sold as "faux fur."

In some countries, raccoon dogs are bred for their fur, which is used in apparel and calligraphy brushes. 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. 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.

7. Raccoon dogs are 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 food intake increases their body mass by 50 percent.

8. 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.

9. They don't 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.

10. 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.

11. A rare white tanuki was discovered in 2013.

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. The unusual coloring may have been due to leucism, a genetic mutation that inhibits production of melanin.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022. Additionally, a fact about keeping raccoon dogs as pets has been removed because the practice is now banned in the U.S. and UK.