What Are Raccoon Dogs? – The New York Times

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On Thursday, scientists unveiled new data on the possible origins of the Covid-19 pandemic — and put a strange, squat creature squarely in the spotlight.

Meet the raccoon dog; it earns its name from its black facial markings, which give the animal a masked appearance and a more-than-passing resemblance to those infamous raiders of urban trash cans.

The animals were at least occasionally sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many virologists suspect that the Covid-19 pandemic may have started.

Scientists had previously announced that swabs from the market had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. The new data revealed that some of these same swabs also contained substantial genetic material from raccoon dogs.

The findings did not prove that raccoon dogs were infected with the virus or that they had passed it on to humans. But they are consistent with the possibility that wild animals at the market may have set off the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Covid Origins: The W.H.O. rebuked China for withholding research that may link the origin of Covid to wild animals, asking why the data was removed from a scientific database. Before the data went missing, an international team of experts who began analyzing it found that it supported the idea that the pandemic could have begun with illegally sold raccoon dogs at a Wuhan market.
  • Maternal Mortality: Government data shows that death of pregnant women in 2021 increased by 40% compared with 2020 and by 60% compared with 2019. Covid was a contributing factor in the rise, a separate report suggests.
  • Paxlovid: A panel of expert advisers to the F.D.A. endorsed Paxlovid as a treatment for adults with Covid who are at high risk for severe illness. The move is likely to lead to full approval of the drug, which has been available under emergency use authorization.

Here’s what to know about the animal in the news.

Despite their name, raccoon dogs are not close relatives of raccoons. They are members of the canid family, a group that also includes domestic dogs, and are most closely related to foxes. Unlike other canids, they may hibernate in winter.

Raccoon dogs are omnivores, dining on food sources like rodents and berries. Although they appear svelte in the summer, they pack on the pounds for winter, when their fur also becomes thicker. They are monogamous, often living in pairs.

Raccoon dogs are native to East Asia, including parts of China, Korea and Japan, where they are known as tanuki.

They have also become widespread in parts of Europe, where they are considered an invasive species. They are sometimes hunted as pests.

Raccoon dogs have long been farmed for their fur. China is a leading producer of raccoon dog pelts; in 2014, the country produced more than 14 million pelts, 100 times as many as Europe, according to one report.

They are also sold for their meat in live animal markets. They were sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market at least as late as November 2019, researchers have reported.

Not necessarily. Laboratory experiments have shown that raccoon dogs are susceptible to, and capable of transmitting, the novel coronavirus. But that does not mean that they are the natural reservoir for the virus. Even if raccoon dogs at the market were infected, they might have been an intermediate host, picking up the virus from bats or another species.

Raccoon dogs and bats were both common on and around some of the farms that supplied the market, scientists have noted.

A similar scenario may have unfolded two decades ago, after the emergence of SARS, which is 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 subsequent research ultimately pointed to bats as the natural reservoir for the virus that causes SARS; raccoon dogs appeared to be intermediate hosts.

It’s probably not a good idea, as tempting as it might be. Covid-19 aside, the animals are known to be vectors for other diseases, including rabies. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends against keeping raccoon dogs as pets.