Scientists have recently revealed new data on the possible origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, putting a creature called the raccoon dog in the spotlight. Although not a close relative of raccoons, raccoon dogs are members of the canid family, closely related to foxes, and are known for their black facial markings that give them a masked appearance. In this article, we will learn more about raccoon dogs, their habitats, why they are bred and sold, and their possible role in the Covid-19 pandemic.
What are Raccoon Dogs?
Raccoon dogs are omnivores that feed on rodents and wild fruits. During the winter, they gain weight, and their fur thickens. They are the only known canid species that hibernate and are monogamous, often living in pairs. Despite their name, they are not close relatives of raccoons.
Where do they Live?
Raccoon dogs are native to eastern Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan, where they are known as “tanuki.” They have also spread to parts of Europe, where they are considered an invasive species and sometimes hunted as pests.
Why are They Bred and Sold?
Raccoon dogs have long been bred for fur production. China is one of the main producers of raccoon dog fur. In 2014, the country produced more than 14 million pelts, 100 times more than Europe, according to a report. They are also sold for meat in live animal markets. They were sold at the Huanan market until November 2019, as reported by researchers.
Are They the Source of the Virus that Causes Covid?
Not necessarily. Laboratory experiments have shown that raccoon dogs are susceptible and capable of transmitting the new coronavirus. However, that does not mean they are the natural reservoir of the virus. Even if Chinese market raccoon dogs were infected, they could have been intermediate hosts, picking up the virus from bats or other species. Raccoon dogs and bats were common around some of the farms that supplied the market.
A similar scenario may have occurred two decades ago, following the emergence of SARS, also caused by a coronavirus. In 2003, scientists found evidence of infected palm civets and raccoon dogs at a live animal market in Shenzen, China. But further research pointed to bats as the natural reservoir of the virus that causes SARS; raccoon dogs appear to be intermediate hosts.
Can I Pet a Raccoon Dog if I See One?
It is probably not a good idea, tempting as it may be. In addition to Covid, the animals are known as vectors of other diseases, including rabies. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends not keeping raccoon dogs as pets.
At last, raccoon dogs are a unique species of the canid family that have been bred for fur production and sold for meat in live animal markets. Although they are not necessarily the source of the virus that causes Covid-19, they are susceptible and capable of transmitting it. Therefore, it is important to continue studying the possible origins of the pandemic and to take measures to prevent the spread of diseases from animals to humans.