Urban diet leading to fat, hyperglycemic raccoons, new study finds

The cheeseburgers, fries and other fast food you don't finish is having dietary consequences for some familiar urban scavengers.

Collaborative study included researchers from ecology, biology, obesity, veterinary backgrounds

The cheeseburgers, fries and other fast food you don't finish is having dietary consequences for some familiar urban scavengers. 

A collaborative research team, including scientists from Laurentian University in Sudbury, has found a connection between the size and health of a raccoon and where they find their meals.

The study involved researchers from ecology, biology, obesity and veterinary backgrounds.

Three groups of raccoons were studied, says Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, Laurentian professor of evolutionary ecology and lead author on the study.
Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, Canada Research Chair, Environmental Micro-Biology, Laurentian University (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

One group regularly feasted on fast food waste at the grounds of the Toronto Zoo, another group lived in a conservation area and had access to moderate garbage, while the third group was from a farming area with little access to human food waste.

The team wanted to find out if there was a difference in the animals' blood glucose levels based on the kinds of food the raccoons ate.

"Those of us [humans] living in cities, with elevated body mass, we're having problems with diabetes and obesity. The question is whether the animals that are feeding on this trash that we're producing, this kind of food we're eating ... is that being reflected in those wildlife populations as well," he said.

Schulte-Hostedde says they chose raccoons because those animals tend to live longer, and the team thought physiological consequences of an urban diet could manifest and be detected more easily. Plus, he added raccoons are iconic urban dwellers.

"Who among us hasn't seen a raccoon emerge from a garbage bin, with a pizza crust in its mouth as it waddles away?" 

Fatter raccoons, higher blood sugar

The results of the study found those raccoons that had access to urban or city garbage were heavier — and had higher blood glucose levels — than their counterparts with access to less human food garbage.

The researchers now want to see if there could be evolutionary changes within the make-up of these larger, urban raccoons.

Humans with elevated blood sugar levels develop negative health problems. Schulte-Hostedde says the team wants to see if raccoons do the same.

"Are there consequences in terms of the reproductive success or survival of these raccoons? I would expect there must be some, but we're not sure," he said.

Schulte-Hostedde added that the results from the study don't necessarily prove that raccoons in urban or city areas are unhealthy or sick.

"We don't know that yet. That's something we have to move forward on."

With files from Angela Gemmill