Veterinarian Liz Stelow answers questions about wildlife
Dear Dr. Stelow,
I feed four feral cats outside my home. (I’ve had them spayed and neutered and I would take them in, but I have seven indoor cats already.)
I’ve often had raccoons come and eat the dry food that was left. We didn’t bother them as they would eat and then go away. However, the other day, during the day, a skinny guy came and banged against my sliding door and just wouldn’t go away.
I’m afraid of rabies, so I wash the dishes in very hot water and then in the dishwasher. But before the spring starts and I have my usual five or six raccoons every night, I wonder if I should be feeding them at all.
You’re right to be wondering whether you should be feeding raccoons at all.
First, as regards the dishes: They pose fairly little rabies risk. It is technically possible for a rabies-infected raccoon to leave infected saliva on a food or water dish. The chance of that saliva becoming a problem depends on whether a mammal with a cut or abrasion comes into contact with that saliva. The virus becomes deactivated in sunlight or when it dries out, so food dishes seem less likely to transmit disease than water dishes. The incidence of non-bite rabies transmission is quite rare, but it is not impossible and rabies is inevitably fatal.
Second, your outdoor cats should be kept up to date on their rabies vaccines, if possible, since the raccoon family almost certainly comes into close contact with these cats.
Third, wild animals, however charming, should not be fed. They can easily become acclimated to human care, and this is safe for neither the animal nor the human. Animals like raccoons can become very bold and feel quite comfortable entering garages or homes looking for food once they determine that the people living there are a good food source.
Although you have not seen any signs of rabies in the raccoons you’ve been feeding, the possibility exists. Best thing would be to develop a way of feeding the cats that’s not accessible by the raccoons, so the raccoons will be encouraged to forage elsewhere.