Raccoons right now are going through many changes to prepare for winter. They’re becoming much more crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) rather than strictly nocturnal and are developing a strong instinct to forage on high-fat foods and seek shelters. All these changes prepare them “Diet Hibernation,” known more scientifically as torpor.
Torpor differs from true hibernation by being much lighter and much less consistent. Animals in true hibernation sleep for weeks or months at a time and don’t need to eat or drink. Bears can even give birth during hibernation, barely waking up in the process!
Torpor is much less extreme. Raccoons in torpor become much more sluggish than in the warmer months and may spend nearly all their time sleeping, but they still need to eat and drink regularly. While raccoons in the coldest parts of their range may sleep for several days at a time during torpor, they never experience the dramatically slowed metabolism that true hibernators experience. During torpor, some raccoons come out only during the warmest parts of the day to forage for food and will particularly seek denser, richer foods than in the spring and summer. Torpor still accomplishes the same thing as hibernation, though: it enables animals to make it through the lean months with little food.
If you’re one of the many people who can relate to a raccoon’s desire to spend the winter sleeping and coming out only to eat junk food, that’s not a coincidence! We humans have a torpor instinct just like our wild neighbors. We tend sleep more and gain weight during the winter, and many experts believe that torpor instinct is a major contributor to seasonal depression. These coming months are hard for most creatures, and we’re no exception!
Please be kind to your raccoon neighbors as they prepare for torpor in the coming weeks. Now is a great time to make sure that your attic and crawl space don’t have any entry-points for guests who might mistake it for a winter den. If you see raccoons foraging in the daytime and they appear otherwise healthy, there’s no need to panic and assume they have rabies. They’re just adjusting their habits with the seasons, as nature intended!