Are Raccoons More Like Dogs or Cats?

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My wife and I left the city of Seattle and moved into a small suburb. Not too long ago, a family of trash pandas raccoons walked across our backyard deck, like they owned the place. (See photo.)

This got me thinking. Are raccoons more like dogs or cats? They certainly exhibit both kinds of behaviors. On the one hand, like dogs, they live in packs. But not always. Raccoons, especially males, go through a phase when they live alone, just like most cats. Other research has shown that raccoons form sex-specific groups. That's right; raccoons have "boys only" and "girls only" clubs.

Raccoons are extremely intelligent, which (sorry cat lovers) makes them a bit more like dogs. (Dogs have twice as many neurons in their cerebral cortices than cats, the parts of the brain associated with higher level thinking.) Raccoons are omnivores, and though dogs are technically carnivores, they'll eat just about anything you give them. Cats, on the other hand, are picky eaters.

So, that settles it. Raccoons are like dogs? Well, sort of. The term "trash panda" really is accurate; raccoons are most similar to bears.

Raccoons and Bears Share a Common Ancestor

Along with dogs and cats, raccoons are part of the order Carnivora. However, an evolutionary tree shows that they are most closely related to bears, sharing a more recent common ancestor with these burly beasts than with either of our domesticated friends.

Source: GWU

Notice that the evolutionary tree splits earliest between cat-like species ("Feliformia") and dog-like species ("Caniformia"). So, the dog-cat division happened early in carnivore evolution. Raccoons arose within the Caniformia suborder. So, technically, the answer to our question is that raccoons are more "like dogs." But there's more to the story.

As evolution progressed, the ancestors of modern-day dogs and the ancestors of modern-day raccoons went their separate ways. Then, about 40 million years ago, the tree split again, with raccoon-like animals going one way and bear-like animals going another. (Here is a tree depicting the evolution of just bears and raccoons.)

There's a Bear in the Woods

As it so happens, a few days after we bought our new house, a black bear wandered through our yard. (It climbed over our fence and its sizable rear end bent it.) Little did we know that the raccoon family that made an appearance a few months later were cousins. Distant cousins, but cousins nonetheless.