Raccoons are famous for their tendency to “wash” their food, but they’re not washing anything at all! Raccoons aren’t exactly the most hygienic animals; they’ll often dip their food into the same body of water they use as a latrine (communal toilet). Ick!
The reason for this behavior is actually much more interesting than you might think! Raccoons have the most sensitive sense of touch of any animal known. Over two thirds of the sensory processing power of a raccoon’s brain are dedicated to its sense of touch, while the critter’s tiny hands are packed with over ten times the number of nerve endings as a human hand.
These very sensitive hands develop a thin protective barrier over time— sort of like a callous— but the layer is softened by water. When a raccoon dips its hands into water, it can feel with perfect acuity. A raccoon will explore its food, memorizing and savoring its texture to learn about it and to be better able to identify and search for it in the future.
“Washing” food, though certainly common, isn’t as universal as you might think. In the wild, raccoons really only do it occasionally but are often seen with their hands dipped in water as they search for crayfish, snails, fish, and worms. We’ve found that our patients only bring their food to water to explore it about one time out of ten, though they do often take toys and pebbles into their pools to play with them.
If you’d like to help provide our trash panda patients with foods and toys to wash, please consider checking forfoxsakewildlife.com for ways to support our work! We can’t do this without you!