The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides, from the Greek words nukt-, “night” + ereutēs, “wanderer” + prokuōn, “before-dog” [but in New Latin used to mean “raccoon”] + -oidēs, “-oid”), also known as the magnut or tanuki, is a canid indigenous to East Asia. It is the only extant species in the genus Nyctereutes. It is considered a basal canid species, resembling ancestral forms of the family. Among the Canidae, the raccoon dog shares the habit of regularly climbing trees only with the North American gray fox, another basal species. The raccoon dog is named for its resemblance to the raccoon (Procyon lotor), to which it is not closely related.
Native East Asian raccoon dog populations have declined in recent years due to hunting, fur trade, urbanization, an increase of animals associated with human civilization such as pets and abandoned animals, and diseases that may be transmitted between them. Following its introduction into central and western Europe, however, it has been treated as a potentially hazardous invasive species.
Raccoon dog skulls greatly resemble those of South American foxes particularly crab eating foxes, though genetic studies reveal they are not closely related. Their skulls are small, but sturdily built and moderately elongated, with narrow zygomatic arches. The projections of the skull are well developed, the sagittal crest being particularly prominent in old animals. In reflection of their omnivorous diets, raccoon dogs have small and weak canines and carnassials, flat molars and relatively long intestines (1.5–2 times longer than other canids). They have long torsos and short legs. Total lengths can range from 45 to 71 cm (18 to 28 in). The tail, at 12 to 18 cm (4.7 to 7.1 in) long, is short, amounting to less than 1/3 of the animal’s total length and hangs below the tarsal joints without touching the ground. The ears are short, and protrude only slightly from the fur. Weights fluctuate according to season; in March, they weigh 3 kg (6.6 lbs), while in August to early September, males average 6.5–7 kg (14–15 lbs), with some individuals attaining a maximal weight of 9–10 kg (20–22 lb). Specimens from Japanese and Russian studies have been shown to be on average larger than those from Chinese studies.
The winter fur is long and thick with dense underfur and coarse guard hairs measuring 120 mm in length. The winter fur protects raccoon dogs from low temperatures ranging down to −20° to −25°C. It is of a dirty, earth-brown or brownish-grey colour with black guard hairs. The tail is darker than the torso. A dark stripe is present on the back which broadens on the shoulders, forming a cross shape. The abdomen is yellowish-brown, while the chest is dark brown or blackish. The muzzle is covered in short hair, which increases in length and quantity behind the eyes. The cheeks are coated with long, whisker-like hairs. The summer fur is brighter and reddish-straw coloured.
The mating season begins from early February to late April, depending on location. Raccoon dogs are monogamous animals, with pair formations usually occurring in autumn. Captive males, however, have been known to mate with four or five females. Males will fight briefly, but not fatally, for mates. Copulation occurs during the night or dawn and will last 6–9 minutes on average. Estrus lasts from a few hours to six days, during which females will mate up to five times. Females will enter estrus again after 20–24 days, even when pregnant. The gestation period lasts 61–70 days, with pups being born in April–May. Litter sizes on average consist of 6–7 pups, though 15–16 pups can be born in exceptional cases. First-time mothers typically give birth to fewer pups than older ones. Males take an active role in raising the pups. This male role is very significant, as demonstrated by early releases in 1928 of pregnant females without males resulting in very limited success at introduction, while later releases of pairs from 1929 until the 1960s resulted in the raccoon dog’s now extensive introduced European range.
At birth, pups weigh 60–110 grams, and are blind and covered in short, dense, soft wool lacking guard hairs. Their eyes open after 9–10 days, with the teeth erupting after 14–16 days. Guard hairs begin to grow after 10 days, and first appear on the hips and shoulders. After two weeks, they lighten in colour, with black tones remaining only around the eyes. Lactation lasts for 45–60 days, though pups will begin eating food brought to them as early as the age of three weeks or one month. They reach their full growth at the age of 4.5 months. Pups will leave their parents in late August–September. By October, the pups, which by then resemble adults, will unite in pairs. Sexual maturity is reached at 8–10 months. Their longevity is largely unknown; animals 6–7 years of age have been encountered in the wild, while captive specimens have been known to live for 11 years.
Racoon dogs are the only canids known to hibernate. In early winter, they increase their subcutaneous fat by 18–23% and their internal fat by 3–5%. Animals failing to reach these fat levels usually do not survive the winter. During their hibernation, their metabolism decreases by 25%. In areas such as Ussuriland and their introduced range, raccoon dogs only hibernate during severe snowstorms. In December, their physical activity decreases once snow depth reaches 15–20 cm, and will limit the range from their burrows to no more than 150–200 m. Their daily activities increase during February when the females become receptive and when food is more available.
Raccoon dogs are omnivores which feed on insects, rodents, amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, molluscs, carrion and insectivores. Among the rodents targeted by raccoon dogs, voles seem to predominate in swampy areas, but are replaced with gerbils in flatland areas such as Astrakhan. Frogs are the most commonly taken amphibians; in the Voronezh region, they frequently eat fire-bellied toads, while European spadefoot toads are usually taken in Ukraine. Raccoon dogs are able to eat toads which have toxic skin secretions by producing copious amounts of saliva to dilute the toxins. They will prey on waterfowl, passerines and migrating birds. Grouse are commonly hunted in their introduced range, and many instances of pheasant predation are recorded in the Ussuri territory. Raccoon dogs will eat beached fish and fish trapped in small water bodies. They rarely catch fish during the spawning season, but will eat many during the spring thaw. In their southern range, they eat young tortoises and their eggs. Insectivorous mammals hunted by raccoon dogs include shrews and hedgehogs and, on rare occasions, moles and desmans. In the Ussuri territory, large moles are their primary source of food. Plant food is highly variable, and includes bulbs, rhizomes, oats, millets, maize, nuts, fruits, berries, grapes, melons, watermelons, pumpkins and tomatoes. In Japan, they have been observed to climb trees to forage for fruits and berries, using their curved claws to climb.
Raccoon dogs will modify their diets seasonally; in late autumn and winter, they feed mostly on rodents, carrion and faeces, while fruit, insects and amphibians predominate in spring. In summer, they eat fewer rodents, and mainly target nesting birds and fruits, grains and vegetables.
They do not bark like foxes, uttering instead a growl, followed by a long-drawn melancholy whine. Captive specimens have been known to utter daily a very different kind of sound when hungry, described as a sort of mewing plaint. Males fighting for females will yelp and growl. Japanese raccoon dogs produce sounds higher in pitch than those of domestic dogs, and sound similar to cats.
From 1928–1958, 10,000 raccoon dogs of the N. p. ussuriensis subspecies were introduced in 76 districts, territories and republics of the Soviet Union in an attempt to improve their fur quality. Primor’e was the first region to be colonised, with individuals being transplanted on islands in the Sea of Japan. By 1934, raccoon dogs were introduced into Altai, the northern Caucasus, Armenia, Kirgizia, Tatarstan, Kalinin, Penza and Orenburg regions. In the following year, they were further introduced into Leningradsky, Murmansk, Novosibirsk and Bashkortostan. Raccoon dogs in Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Trans-Baikaliya and Altai did not fare well, due to harsh winters and scarce food. Raccoon dogs also fared badly in the mountainous regions of the Caucasus, Middle Asia and Moldova. However, successful introductions occurred in the Baltic states, European Russia (particularly in Kalinin, Novgorod, Pskov and Smolensk regions), in central Russia (Moscow, Yaroslavl, Vologda, Gorkiy, Vladimir, Ryazan Oblasts, etc.) as well as in the black soil belt (Voronezh, Tambov and Kursk), the lower Volga Region and the level parts of the northern Caucasus and Dagestan. In Ukraine, the greatest numbers of raccoon dogs were established in Poltava, Kherson and Lugansk.
In 1948, 35 raccoon dogs were introduced into Latvia. The population increased rapidly. In 1960, Latvia officially reported a total of 4,210 raccoon dog were hunted.
The raccoon dog is now abundant throughout Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and has been reported as far away as Serbia, France, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. In response, Denmark set a goal of zero breeding raccoon dogs by 2015.
The five recognized subspecies of raccoon dog are:
Nyctereutes procyonoides koreensis
Produces poor-quality fur
N. p. orestes
N. p. ussuriensis
Distinguished from N. a. procyonides by its larger size and denser, longer hair. After being introduced to western USSR, it now occurs throughout Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.
Russia (Ussuri and Amur territories), northeastern China and Korea, Europe
N. p. viverrinus
A small subspecies with smaller teeth and skull compared to those of N. p. ussuriensis,it has the silkiest pelt among raccoon dogs.
There is some debate in the scientific community regarding speciation between the other subspecies of raccoon dog and the Japanese subspecies in that due to chromosome, behavioral and weight differences, the Japanese raccoon dog could be considered a separate species from the other subspecies. Genetic analysis confirmed unique sequences of mtDNA, classifying the Japanese raccoon dog as a distinct isolation species, based on evidence of eight Robertsonian translocations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Canid Group’s Canid Biology and Conservation Conference in September 2001 rejected the classification of the Japanese raccoon dog as a separate species, but its status is still disputed, based on its elastic genome.
Wolves are the main predators of raccoon dogs, killing large numbers of them in spring and summer, though attacks have been reported in autumn, too. In Tartarstan, wolf predation can account for 55.6% of raccoon dog deaths, while in northwestern Russia, it amounts to 64%. Red foxes will kill raccoon dog pups, and have been known to bite adults to death. Both foxes and Eurasian badgers compete with raccoon dogs for food, and have been known to kill them if raccoon dogs enter their burrows. Eurasian lynxes rarely attack them, due to their low numbers. Birds of prey known to prey on raccoon dogs include golden eagles, white tailed eagles, goshawks and eagle owls.
Diseases and parasites
Raccoon dogs carry 32 different parasitic worms, including eight trematode species, 17 species of nematodes, seven cestodes and particularly Echinococcus. Six species of fleas are known to be carried by them, including Chaetopsylla trichosa, C. globiceps, Paraceras melis, Ctenocephalides felis, C. canis and Pulex irritans. Ticks include Dermacentor pictus, Ixodes ricinus, I. persulcatus, I. crenulatus and Acarus siro. Speculation exists that the introduction of the raccoon dog to Europe brought with it infected ticks that introduced the Asian tick-borne meningoencephalitis virus.
Cases of raccoon dogs carrying rabies are known from the lower Volga, Voronezh and Lithuania, and massive epizootics of piroplasmosis were recorded in Ukraine and Tartary. Canine distemper occurs in raccoon dogs inhabiting the northern Caucasus. Captive raccoon dogs in Soviet state animal farms were recorded to carry paratyphoid, anthrax and tuberculosis. Although they can be infected with mange, it does not pose a significant threat to their populations as it does with foxes.
Relationships with humans
Game and crop damage
Raccoon dogs are typically hunted from November until the snow deepens. In the Far East, they are hunted at night with Laikas and mongrels. In the 19th century, the Goldi and Oroch people would fasten bells to the collars of their raccoon dog hounds. In their introduced range, raccoon dogs are usually caught incidentally during hunts for other species. Hunting with dogs is the most efficient method in raccoon dog harvests, having success rates of 80–90%, as opposed to 8–10% with guns and 5–7% with traps. Unless they retreat in their burrows, hunted raccoon dogs can be quickly strangled by hunting dogs. Traps are usually set at their burrows, along the shores of water bodies and around marshes and ponds.
In Finland, 60,000–70,000 raccoon dogs were bagged in 2000, but the take was 170,000 in 2009 and 164,000 in 2010. Hunting of raccoon dogs in Hungary began in 1997, with an annual catch of one to 9 animals. In Poland, 6,200 were shot in 2002–2003. Annual Swedish and Danish raccoon dog hunts usually result in the capture of two to seven individuals. Between 18,000 and 70,000 Japanese raccoon dogs were killed in Japan from the post-WWII period to 1982. Japan has intensified its raccoon dog culling since the 1970s, averaging 4,529 kills annually between 1990 and 1998. Harvests have since decreased.
When used on clothing, the fur of the raccoon dog is called “murmansky” fur. Generally, the quality of the pelt is based on the silkiness of the fur, as its physical appeal depends upon the guard hairs being erect, which is only possible in silkier furs. Small raccoon dog pelts with silky fur command higher prices than large, coarse-furred ones. Due to their long and coarse guard hairs and their woolly fur fibre which has a tendency to felt or mat, raccoon dog pelts are used almost exclusively for fur trimmings. Japanese raccoon dog pelts, though smaller than other geographic variants, are the most valued variety, with specimens from Amur and northern Manchuria coming close behind, while Korean and southern Chinese are the least valued. When raised in captivity, raccoon dogs can produce 100 grams of wool of slightly lesser quality than that of goats.
In the Japanese islands, the natives employed raccoon dog skin to make bellows, and also to decorate their drums and for winter head-gear.Russian trade in raccoon dogs was quite developed in the Primorye and Ussuri areas in the 1880s. The world trade of raccoon dog pelts during the 1907–1910 amounted to 260–300,000, of which it was once estimated that 20,000 (5–8%) came from Russia, though more recent figures estimate a lesser number of 5–6,000. 12,000 raccoon dogs were caught in the 1930s. In their introduced range, licensed trade of raccoon dogs began in 1948–1950, with restrictions being removed in 1953–1955. After the trade began, the number of catches increased sharply; from 1953–1961, it fluctuated between 30–70,000. In the latter year, about 10,000 were taken from their natural range in the Far East, while 56,000 were taken in their introduced range. Of the 56 thousand, 6,500 came from Belorussia, 5,000 in Ukraine, 4,000 each for Latvia, Lithuania and Krasnodar, 3,700 in Kalinin, 2,700 in Pskov, 2,300 in Astrakhan, while 1–2,000 pelts each were produced in Vologod, Moscow, Leningrad, Novogrod, Smolensk, Yaroslavl, Azerbaijan, Estonia and Dagestan. Less than 1000 pelts were produced in all remaining republics and districts. Successful raccoon dog introductions in Kalinin resulted in animals with denser and softer fur: the length of guard and top hairs increased by 7.96%, that of the underfur by 5.3%. The thickness of the guard and top hairs decreased by 3.41%. The density of the fur increased by 11.3%. They also became darker in colour, with black-brown pelts occurring in 8% of specimens, as opposed to 3% in their homeland.
Captive breeding of raccoon dogs was initiated in 1928 in the Far East, with 15 state farms keeping them in 1934. Raccoon dogs were the principal furbearers farmed during the early years of collective farms, particularly in the Ukraine. By the 1940s, this practise lessened in popularity, as the raccoon dogs required almost the same types of food as silver foxes, which were more valuable.
An investigation by three animal protection groups into the Chinese fur trade in 2004 and part of 2005 asserts approximately 1.5 million raccoon dogs are raised for fur in China.The raccoon dog comprises 11% of all animals hunted in Japan. Twenty percent of domestically produced fur in Russia is from the raccoon dog.
Misrepresentation as Artificial Fur
In several widely publicized incidents, clothing advertised and sold as having synthetic faux fur, were documented as actually containing real fur from raccoon dogs.
In late 2006, MSNBC reported Macy’s had pulled from its shelves and its website two styles of Sean John hooded jackets, originally advertised as featuring faux fur, after an investigation concluded garments were actually made from raccoon dog. Sean Combs, the label’s founder, said he had been unaware of the material, but as soon as he knew about it, he had his clothing line stop using the material.
On 24 April 2008, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a false advertising complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission alleging at least 20 retailers in the U.S. have been mislabeling raccoon dog fur. They assert 70% of fur garments they tested were raccoon dog but were mislabeled as faux fur, coyote, rabbit, or other animals. In December 2009 Lord & Taylor announced new regulations banning the sale of raccoon dog fur in its stores.
On 19 March 2013, three U.S. retailers settled lawsuits with the U.S. government following an investigation which confirmed they had been selling raccoon dog fur, but labeling it as fake fur. Neiman Marcus, DrJays.com and Eminent (Revolve Clothing) reached settlements with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that do not incur financial penalties unless they mislabel the fur again.