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Raccoon dogs may have been linked to the pandemic. What are they?

A raccoon dog looks out of its cage in a Chinese live animal market in January 2004. Raccoon dogs could have been an initial host for the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
A raccoon dog looks out of its cage in a Chinese live animal market in January 2004. Raccoon dogs could have been an initial host for the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Health Organization is asking Chinese officials to release data that may show a link between raccoon dogs and the coronavirus. That left many wondering — what is a raccoon dog, anyway?

First, here's why we're talking about them. They were being sold at a seafood and meat market in Wuhan, China, where researchers found evidence of the coronavirus in January 2020. Data that was briefly posted on, and then removed from, an international database appeared to show that genetic material from raccoon dogs showed up in the same swabs as the virus that causes COVID, implying the animals could've been an initial host.

OK, so what are they?

In simple terms, they're a wild dog whose face looks like a raccoon's. In slightly more scientific terms, raccoon dogs are a member of the canid family with fur markings and head shapes similar to those of raccoons.

The omnivorous animal is native to East Asia, including parts of China, Korea and Japan. Breeding from the fur farming industry introduced thousands of them throughout the former Soviet Union, and they're now a widespread invasive species throughout northern and western Europe.

They prefer to live in forests and dense vegetation, as well as areas bordering water.

They're more closely related to foxes than to domesticated dogs. Raccoon dogs are a completely different species from coonhounds, which are a domesticated breed of scenthound also known as a coon dog.

Have they been linked to other diseases?

Yes. Raccoon dogs and related mammals sold for food at a a live animal market in China in 2003 were found to carry a coronavirus similar to the virus found in humans during a SARS coronavirus outbreak at the time. In 2004, Chinese health officials ordered the slaughter of 10,000 animals set to be sold at market, including raccoon dogs, after a man tested positive for a novel strain of the SARS virus and raised fears of another outbreak.

One 2022 study took samples from about 2,000 animals of 18 different species from across settings in China — including natural habitats, zoos and fur farms. It found that wild animals known to be eaten by humans, including raccoon dogs, carried 102 different viruses from 13 viral families.

Twenty-one of those pose a high risk to humans, researchers said, either because they had infected people before or had a history of jumping between species with ease.

Raccoon dogs specifically carried four canine coronaviruses that were genetically similar to those found in humans. They also carried enteric viruses, or viruses that are transmitted when infected fecal matter enters the mouth or nose.

Researchers said this evidence confirms the danger of live markets like the one in Wuhan.

"It's hard to think of a more effective way to ignite and fan the flames of an epidemic," evolutionary biologist and co-author of the study Edward Holmes told the journal Science. "We keep allowing these things to flourish and it's only a matter of time before we get another outbreak and perhaps another pandemic."

Still, they're so cute! Can I keep one?

No.

Raccoon dogs are wild animals, not domesticated pets. They live in large home ranges, meaning they need lots of space and are difficult to manage in enclosures or other small spaces, according to the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

They also have a strong odor because they use scent to communicate, making them a poor indoor house guest.

And, if a raccoon dog escapes or is released into the wild, it can threaten native wildlife in the parts of the world it isn't native to.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Kaitlyn Radde