We have all heard the notion that any raccoon that is out during daylight hours has rabies or distemper. Although many people, including myself, have bought into this myth for many years, the fact is that this is not always true. In fact, it is not so uncommon for perfectly healthy raccoons to be spotted out during the day. It is important to recognize that raccoons forage all night for their food, and when they don’t get enough during the night hours, they must continue to forage into the daylight. This is most common when the females have babies to feed during the springtime, as there is an increased need for food in order to produce enough milk to nourish their young.
Although it is recognized that rabid raccoons exhibit a variety of odd behaviors, being spotted during daylight hours is certainly not a good indicator of infection. However, there are some sure-fire indicators for spotting a rabid raccoon. One indication of a rabid raccoon can be noticed in its walking ability. If a raccoon is having difficulty walking or exhibits partial or full paralysis of hind legs, or continually walks in circles, it is probably rabid. Another indicator of rabies can be seen in its alertness. Rabid raccoons often look disoriented, confused, or have slow mobility. A healthy raccoon will be going about its business in a purposeful manner. Additionally, although all raccoons make chattering noises at each other, healthy raccoons usually will not be chattering or making crazy noises while they forage, while rabid raccoons often make repeated, high-pitched sounds. Another well-known sign of rabies is foaming at the mouth. This knowledge is just as common as the myth of being out during daylight hours, but this behavior is no myth. If you come in close proximity to a raccoon foaming at the mouth, get away FAST!
This myth likely began by people labeling daylight foraging by raccoons as unusual behavior. As stated above, many unusual behaviors are associated with rabies. Since this behavior was incorrectly considered by the public as “unusual”, it was likely added to the list of unusual behaviors associated with rabid raccoons. As we have learned, it is, in fact, not so unusual at all. Like any other myth or misconception, this myth was likely perpetuated through years and years of misunderstanding and word of mouth. Moreover, since raccoons account for the largest fraction, 36.5% in 2010 according to the CDC, (http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/usa/surveillance/index.html) of rabies incidents in the US, it is not surprising that the public has become overly cautious when deeming some behaviors, such as being out during daylight hours, as unusual.
If you find yourself in a situation where you spot a raccoon with any of the signs of rabies discussed above, you should leave the area immediately to avoid contact and contact your local animal control or police department.