The Real Reason Why Raccoons Eat Garbage and Don’t Get Sick
Raccoons, recognizable by their bushy banded tails and masked face, which give them the oh-so-clever nickname ‘masked bandits,’ are common animals that live in a variety of habitats. You’ve heard of raccoons and masked bandits, but what about trash pandas? Same thing? Oh yeah.
Raccoons are adaptable to almost any environment, changing their diet based on what’s easily available and costs the least energy to obtain. Raccoons often visit garbage cans for an easy meal and don’t get sick from eating garbage by avoiding items that are too rotten or are altogether inedible.
These trash pandas are omnivorous mammals that, by nature, tend to seek shelter near water sources and forested areas. They are also now a common urban troublemaker, especially when it comes to climbing into garbage bins, down chimneys, and in other places they aren’t supposed to be.
Why you may be asking, do raccoons opt for garbage of all things? How, in fact, can they eat trash without getting seriously ill?
Let’s get started with the question on everyone’s mind:
Do Raccoons Get Sick From Eating Garbage?
You’re probably here because you’re concerned about your neighborhood raccoon invading your trash and then causing a mess, or the little prankster is getting ill when the garbage and its stomach inevitably do not agree.
Don’t worry too much- raccoons can eat garbage, similar to how they eat other wild animals, without getting sick most of the time. Raccoons avoid the foods in garbage bins that make them sick and thus, get an easy meal from your garbage.
Raccoons are intelligent creatures, not to mention incredibly opportunistic, and take care of themselves better than you might expect.
Not to mention that the definition of garbage really does differ depending on who you ask. It’s like that old saying, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’
While we can probably all agree that old food scraps and composting plants are not exactly a treasure, even in the eyes of a raccoon, however, these things do serve as good sources of food when necessary.
Raccoons are not picky eaters, and this comes to their aid when scavenging in the most urban of places.
So, in the depths of your garbage can, or at the very top if you’re both lucky, lay scraps of food. Maybe it’s the last two bites of a dinner that wasn’t worth putting in the fridge, or even some sneakily disposed of food that your child didn’t want.
Similarly, in a compost bin lies a buffet waiting for your local raccoon pal: plants, food scraps like eggshells and fruit peels, and earthworms are all on the menu for these masked bandits.
Okay, we get it. Raccoons eat trash, but not really ‘trash’ so much as old, forgotten food that actually helps all parties to be rid of. This leads to another question because surely these animals do not want only dumpster dive for meals. What about in nature?
What Do Raccoons Eat Besides Trash?
Raccoons will eat nearly anything. Seriously.
Raccoon diets consist of things found in nature, such as nuts and berries, insects, and small rodents. Sometimes they’ll feed on farmed poultry and their eggs or other wild birds (often injured.)
When they want to feed their carnivorous side but don’t feel like chasing or hunting, fish are also often a choice meal for raccoons.
Speaking of ease, insects and already dead animals, along with garbage and food left out and about, are like striking gold to a raccoon.
When meat scraps are thrown out, it’s normally because there is a part of the meat that doesn’t meet your preference. Raccoons don’t think like this.
They know to check their food (did we mention their intelligence?), but eating small animals in the wild makes them a whole lot less concerned about the cut and fat of the meat. Funny how nature works, huh?
Garbage bins are such a good source of food for raccoons because, by nature, humans do throw out a lot of food that animals would never think to pass up. Whether it is some meat left on the bone of your Wednesday night chicken dinner or some berries that you just weren’t loving the texture of anymore, food is still food.
This is the reality of why raccoons can avoid getting sick when dumpster/compost diving. They eat our version of garbage, which isn’t their version of the word.
To a raccoon, some chicken on the bone is just meat that they didn’t have to chase down or seek out, and mushy berries are a sweet treat that they didn’t have to scavenge the forest for.
This leads us to our next point.
Raccoons Think Smart Not Hard
When it comes down to it, raccoons are smart creatures. They are also lazy, but why not be when you can easily find resources that other animals may miss?
They use their cunning and are motivated by laziness to get quick, easy meals wherever that may be (i.e., the trash.)
In fact, raccoons are so smart that, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, they actually dunk potential food items into the water to test them for edibility.
In some languages, the word for raccoon actually translates to ‘washer animals’ or ‘the one who washes.‘ While this action looks just like rinsing or washing food, the reality is that raccoons’ paw sensitivity is heightened in water.
Since their sense of touch is heightened, they can feel their intended meal for spots that may be too rotten or simply decide whether or not this is actually what they want to eat.
It may sound gross to you, but think of the soggy bottom of a trash bag:
For us, that is a mess waiting to happen and just one more reason to make sure the garbage is sealed. Nobody likes smelly trash. For a raccoon, that is an extra opportunity to easily check whatever food happens to be down there.
Raccoons Scavenge For Food Everywhere
There is no question that raccoons can find something to eat and somewhere to sleep, no matter where they are. Their adaptability and intelligence level help them avoid eating things that simply are not digestible by their bodies.
Since they are omnivores, berries, fruit, eggs, lizards, crustaceans, fish, wild birds, domestic poultry, and garbage scraps are their main source of food.
This is why they eat ‘garbage.’ To them, it is just another source of food that is easily accessible.
Raccoons store up fat to survive the winter instead of hibernating like other mammals of similar stature. They’ll still find hollow trees, caves, or rocks to make their dens and will sleep for a few days at a time, but traditional hibernation is just not their thing.
It is for this reason that raccoons also loooove to end up in people’s attics, sheds, garages, and (say it with me!) garbage bins.
A creature that resides in most states in the United States, they have also been known to roam Canada, South America, Europe, and some regions of Asia.
A Raccoon’s high level of adaptability has allowed them to move around, following resources, and has resulted in a very spread out global population of ‘trash pandas.’
Now that we know how and why raccoons can eat trash, not get sick, and adapt to any environment, it should be noted that these creatures are far from invincible. Yes, that’s right, there are still foods that make them sick.
What Foods Make Raccoons Sick?
So, the question of the moment… What food will make raccoons ill? Is there a certain category that evades the omnivorous diet used to sustain raccoons near and far?
Chocolate, raisins, and macadamia nuts are toxic to raccoons.
Certain other foods, such as garlic, dry cat food, and bread in some cases, can make raccoons sick as well.
Also, seeing as these are wild animals, any sort of overly processed junk food is very unhealthy for them (just like us, it’s best to not overdo it!)
Basically, there are very few things that fall into the category of being generally edible that raccoons cannot eat.
So, unless you like throwing out chocolate or trail mix for fun, you can sleep soundly knowing that if a raccoon is digging through your garbage… at least it won’t be getting sick.
Raccoons Are Versatile Creatures
Raccoons’ versatility when it comes to food and habitat has allowed them to expand into regions around the world. This reflects their flexible nature but also stems from human involvement.
When people cut down forests, where do the animals go?
Sometimes they stay around the area, hence seeing different animals in your quiet suburban neighborhood from time to time. Other times, they venture outward to find new habitats that will better serve them and their young.
While humans are the cause of the necessary relocation, they also have helped by building shelter areas for the animals.
It should be noted, however, that since raccoons are intelligent creatures that don’t love hard work, feeding them is not the best idea.
This will create an attachment that is, while not necessary for them to survive, going to become a bad pattern for everyone.
Unless you want raccoons swarming your area consistently, do not feed them. (Even if this doesn’t sound bad to you, your neighbors will likely thank you for keeping the raccoon parties to a minimum.)
In certain regions, raccoons have been able to adapt to different food types. Based on their habitat, raccoons are willing to shift their diet to best suit the options available to them at any given moment.
For example, raccoons that live in forests near rivers may eat more fish, while those that live in urban regions will dumpster dive much more frequently.
Injured animals, like birds, rodents, and lizards, are always much easier for raccoons to catch, so they tend to be a staple of their flexibly omnivorous diet.
Depending on the time of year, raccoons may shift their diet to accommodate more insects when crops begin to dwindle, and berries and nuts are less prosperous.
Since these animals do not hibernate, they store extra fat leading up to winter because they know they will use (and then lose) it. Food scarcity does not concern them because they know there will always be something available.
Whether that means grubs in the ground, fish in the stream, or garbage in a bin, food is food to a raccoon.
So, it’s great that raccoons are cunning and resourceful, but what about how this adaptability affects you and your property? Are you looking for ways to keep your garbage safe from these masked bandits?
How Do I Stop Raccoons From Eating My Garbage?
There are basically two ways to go about this dilemma: Sealing your trash or hiding your trash.
When you follow these two simple steps, you’ll have greater peace of mind. Not to mention this can help you with other, seemingly unrelated pests and problems down the road.
Without further adieu, the two ways that we recommend to keep raccoons out and garbage in:
Seal Your Trash!
Keeping your garbage bins sealed is one of the easiest yet most effective ways to keep raccoons from eating garbage… well, yours, that is.
Are you planning on going camping this summer? Make sure to bring a collapsible camping trash can such as the Rook Outdoors Collapsible Container that can be sealed and even stowed away in your vehicle at night.
If you are concerned about your garbage at home, make sure to double knot your bags and use heavy-duty trash bags that are intended to keep these furry fiends out of your discarded items.
For example, try this rodent repellent trash bag, which is designed to keep raccoons and other pesky creatures out while sealing the scent of your trash in.
Using the scent of mint, which repels most rodents, there is no question that this is a great product worth trying.
These rodent/raccoon repellent bags are not only great for security but add a little something for you, too. Who doesn’t love the scent of mint (especially compared to the alternative option of, well, trash?!)
If you are not able to avoid leaving your garbage bins outdoors, try something like Strong Strap Universal Garbage Can Lid Lock Utility Strap. This is a solution that is easy and pretty permanent.
You can drill a few holes into the garbage bin before attaching this strong, locking utility strap. Voila! You’ve got a garbage bin where it belongs and a whole host of animals that are no longer able to get in.
Remember, it isn’t just raccoons that have made a lifestyle out of dumpster diving.
This garbage locking strap does not interfere with trash collection in any way. Just unlock before it is set to be picked up, and then seal again when you get home that day. An easy solution that will work for anyone, anywhere!
Hide Your Trash
Wildlife NYC reminds us that raccoons are highly intelligent and opportunistic, meaning that, even if your trash is sealed, there is still a chance that it will become the new favorite dining spot for raccoons in your area.
To prevent this unwelcome intrusion from occurring, the next step is to not leave garbage bins outside.
If you have a place to put them that is not on the street or sidewalk, utilize this! Stick your garbage bin in your garage for the week, only setting it out on days that trash is collected. Got a shed? Use that.
If you are in an urban environment, you are not exempt from this issue. In fact, these mammals have used their adaptation skills to thrive in cities, a place where there is no shortage of garbage.
Using both of these proactive methods is the most surefire way to avoid these pests from invading your trash, your space, and your life.
While we might understand now why raccoons love to dumpster dive and that it won’t make them sick, it is still perfectly understandable for you to wish they weren’t around.
That’s All For Now
Now that we’ve learned a little more about raccoon intelligence levels, their diet, and how they work the system, we know that getting sick from eating garbage just really is not a concern to these furry pathfinders.
Raccoons don’t get sick from eating garbage because they know how to avoid items that are too rotten or altogether inedible.
One food source changes or is eliminated from the area? For a raccoon, this is no big deal. These creatures adjust their diets in any way necessary to ensure that they have full stomachs.
When one food source is eliminated, a raccoon will adjust their diet based on what is available.
No picky eaters here!
If you want them to avoid using your garbage bin as an all-access buffet, keep it sealed and inside a garage or shed when possible.
Much like feeding the ducks at a pond or monkeys when you visit the rainforest, you should not feed raccoons (no matter how cute they are!)
Giving wild animals food creates dependence. Though raccoons are smart enough to search high and low for their meals, you won’t want them making a mental note that your house is a good place to return to time and time again for dinner.
Raccoons adapt at the drop of a hat. Natural habitat turned into a housing development? Disappointing, but there’ll still be food. No more insects, berries, rodents, apples, or whatever else? Fine, garbage it is. Garbage suddenly has a lid on it? Okay, next house.
When all is said and done, raccoons are adaptable creatures and do not take harshly to change. This may or may not be a good thing when you’re trying to get them to avoid your property but, in terms of their survival as a species, it is pretty impressive.
Bromley, P. T., Lochmiller, R. L., & Chapman, D. L. (1984). Raccoon biology and management.
Page, L. K., Anchor, C., Luy, E., Kron, S., Larson, G., Madsen, L., … & Smyser, T. J. (2009). Backyard raccoon latrines and risk for Baylisascaris procyonis transmission to humans. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15(9), 1530.
Sasaki, H., & Kawabata, M. (1994). Food habits of the raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus in a mountainous area of Japan. Journal of the Mammalogical Society of Japan, 19(1), 1-8.
Hirasawa, M., Kanda, E., & Takatsuki, S. (2006). Seasonal food habits of the raccoon dog at a western suburb of Tokyo. Mammal study, 31(1), 9-14.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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