A diligent scholar is like a bee who takes honey from many different flowers and stores it in his hive.
—John Amos Comenius
Raccoons are about the same size as a domestic cat, though they are generally somewhat larger. And there are videos on YouTube (such as this one), documenting the fact that wild male raccoons will voluntarily mate with cats.
Cats have also been known to nurse baby raccoons (see video below). Under such circumstances, the baby coons would probably become imprinted on cats, so that they would be sexually attracted to cats when they reached maturity. (Imprinting is a widespread phenomenon in mammals and birds.)
So there is no absolute physical or behavior barrier that separates the two. But the question of physiological compatibility remains. That is, is it possible to produce actual cat-raccoon hybrids? To date, it seems, the evidence is merely anecdotal.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), a Unitarian minister, was active in the American abolitionism movement. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment. After the war, he devoted much of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised people.
The October 1871 issue of the American Naturalist (vol. 5, no. 10, pp. 660-661) contains the following account authored by Higginson:
Hybrid Between Cat and Raccoon. — I saw yesterday (May 2nd, 1871) the most interesting hybrid animal I ever examined; and hasty as the examination was, it may be worth mentioning. Passing through Taunton, Mass., I saw in the doorway of Mr. Dunbar’s bookstore what struck me at first as being the handsomest cat I had ever beheld. The second glance revealed an unmistakable look of wildness; and, for a moment, it seemed to me that it must be some creature of the squirrel kind, at any rate something else than a cat. On inquiry, I found it to be the offspring of a domestic cat and a tame raccoon, kept in the same family in China, Maine. I was informed that there had been several litters of these hybrids, and Mr. Dunbar had before owned one of a previous litter. That had been stolen, and he had obtained this younger one, now seven months old from Maine.
She is larger than an average cat of that age, and is at once distinguishable both in shape and color. The color is a dark tawny, brindled with streaks that are almost black, on body and legs, and more obscurely on the tail. The under side of the body is lighter, as you will see from the matted hair which I enclose, and which was cut from the under side of one of the hind legs. (She is just now shedding her hair.) All the darker tints are quite unlike any that I ever saw in a cat. In shape she is somewhat slender, I should say though, this is concealed by the great length of the hair. The legs seem longer than a cat’s, and there is something peculiar in her gait as if they were set on differently. Her walk is neither plantigrade, nor yet quite feline, while it is easy and not ungraceful. I noticed no peculiarity in the paws, but the owner said she used them “unlike a cat more like a squirrel.” The head looks more triangular than a cat’s, possibly, from the pointed and tufted ears, which are quite peculiar. The expression of the creature’s face was so wild and formidable that I actually hesitated to touch her, but found her gentle and caressing, beyond even the habit of cats she seemed more sympathetic and human, instead of less so, which surprised me. But the chief beauty was in the hair, which I found to be very long and silken, with a softness such as I have rarely felt in any quadruped except at a very early age. This characteristic attains its greatest perfection in the tail which does not in the least remind one of a cat’s, but is as bushy and ornamental as a squirrel’s—broad and waving and graceful. I am not well acquainted with the raccoon, though I have seen it alive; but it seems a remarkable and interesting circumstance that a hybrid should have a softness and silkiness of coat beyond that of either progenitor.
The owner has had this beautiful animal but a few weeks and had the elder specimen of the same race but a day. He says that this one is ordinarily quite gentle and docile; but that on one occasion being taken up by the tail she turned upon the aggressor with a fury far beyond that of a common cat. She also never retreats before a dog, and the dog usually retires. She feeds on milk and meat, like a cat; but has never yet caught a mouse perhaps for want of opportunity. She is peculiarly nocturnal in her habits, is quite drowsy by day (which I also noticed), but becomes playful at night [raccoons are predominately nocturnal, unlike cats], and is always found rambling about the large shop in which she is confined.
Mr. Dunbar states that the other specimen of this breed, which he previously owned resembled this one in color and shape, but not in the length of hair, having more resemblance in that respect to the common cat. It would be exceedingly interesting to compare the different offspring of this strange union. I was unable to ascertain which of the parents—cat or raccoon—was the female; nor could I obtain the name of the person in China, Maine, beneath whose roof these singular hybrids were produced. Possibly you may have some correspondent in that locality who could give more accurate information. If it were possible to overcome, in this case, the ordinary infertility of hybrids. I am confident that there would be quite a demand for animals of this breed for their beauty alone.— T. W. Higginson, Newport, R. I.
An 1886 newspaper report provides specific information about such hybrids being breed in Maine. It appeared in many newspapers around the country that year, but the following transcript comes from page 5 (column 5) of the May 7, 1886 issue of the Wichita Daily Eagle, a newspaper published in Wichita, Kansas (source):
Since the fashion for lap dogs is fast giving place to the “pussy” craze, perhaps the society women of New York would like to know what a picturesque and curious species of the feline race we have up this way. The animal I refer to is the property of Mrs. Finley Hayes, of Greenbush. It is half raccoon and half Maltese [cat], and in appearance much resembles the coon, but the cat-like instincts are shown in her actions. The fur, which is a sort of a slate, reddish, brown and black in color, is long and bushy. The tail, unlike a cat’s, is wide and similar to that of a squirrel. The most curious characteristic is a natural fur collar about its neck, formed by the hair growing there much longer than on any part of the body. This unique animal is the mother of two kittens just toddling about and partaking largely of the peculiarities of the mother. It is said that Mrs. Hayes has had many large pecuniary offers for these very interesting offsprings, and for the mother the sum of $100 has been proffered.
An interesting tidbit related to this cross is an old news report, dating to 1876, about a Maltese cat giving birth to raccoons. It reads “A Maltese cat, in Portage township, has given birth to one kitten and two raccoons. The cat treats the young coons as kindly as she does the kitten.” Portage is a village in Wood County, Ohio. This claim parallels certain old reports in which, supposedly, one kind of animal gave birth to offspring of another kind, Thus, in one old report a cat gave birth to a squirrel and both the Dutch physician Stalpart vander Weil and the German chronicler Niels Heldvad reported cases of women gave birth to a puppies.
A third report about hybridization of this type appears in a letter from biologist James Newton Baskett (1849-1925) entitled “Coon Cats” published in the Oct. 20, 1893 issue of the journal Science (vol. XXII, no. 559, p. 220): “Speaking of cats, I saw in a private house in Chicago recently, two cats which
An additional point of interest relating to the possibility of raccoon-cat hybrids is that, according to Wikipedia, one theory accounting for the origin of the Maine Coon breed of cat,
With regard to Wikipedia’s claim that a cat-raccoon hybrid is “genetically impossible,” it is well to remember that such claims have been made about many crosses that turned out to be possible when the cross was actually tried. One example among many is the cross domestic pig x babyrusa. Professional zookeepers, who were convinced that such a cross was impossible, placed a domestic pig together with a babirusa in a compound at the Copenhagen Zoo and were amazed when the pair produced perfectly viable hybrids.
Claims that Maine coons are cat-raccoon hybrids abound in the older cat-breeding literature. For example, in the April 27, 1927 issue of the breeder’s periodical Cat Gossip (London, 1926-1932), the following is stated:
Such an account, for example appears on page 23 (column 7) of the January 27, 1901 issue of The Saint Paul Globe, a newspaper published in Saint Paul, Minnesota (source). The same story appeared in many other papers around the country. It read as follows:
Saturday Evening Post.
The rearing of coon-cats is a coming industry. Coon cats are worth today from $5 to $100 apiece, and the supply does not begin to meet the demand. Exceptional specimens have been known to fetch $200 or even $300. At the present time all of them come from Maine, simply for the reason that the breed is peculiar as yet to that state. Their popularity is such that the business of breeding them has been rapidly growing during the last few years in that part of the country, and one shipper, not very far from Bar Harbor [Maine], exported in 1899 no fewer than 3,000 of the animals.
Strange to say, there are comparatively few people south or west of New England who know what a “coon-cat” is. If you ask that question “down in Maine,” however, the citizens will seem surprised at your ignorance, and will explain to you, in a condescending way, that the creature in question is half raccoon—the descendant of a “cross between a ’coon and a common cat.” Coon-cats have been recognized as a distinct breed in Maine for so long that the memory of the oldest inhabitant runs not back to their beginning. You will find several of them in almost any village in that part of the world.
Descriptions of Maine coons on the internet list raccoon-like traits of these cats, even while dismissing the idea of raccoon-cat hybrids as “impossible.” For example, a website about Maine coons states that “both raccoons and Maine coons have lush, long tails and the tendency to dunk their food into their drinking water.” Another website states that “Maine Coon cats often talk with a chirpy trill, which is not dissimilar to the sound of a young raccoon.” Hybrids from many different types of crosses produce vocalizations that are a mix of sounds otherwise uttered only separately by their two parents. (Such is the case, for example, with hybrids between White-handed Gibbon and Pileated Gibbon, which produced mixed calls having components characteristic of one or the other of their two parents.) A third website says the
Raccoons and cats have identical chromosome counts, and similar karyotypes. Thus, Stanyon et al. (1993), after comparing the chromosomes of Felis catus with those of P. lotor, stated the following: “We propose a standardized karyotype for the raccoon (Procyon lotor; 2n = 38, FN 74) and compare it with that of the domestic cat (2n = 38, FN 72). Numerous chromosomes (12) have similar and sometimes identical G‐banding and 14 chromosome pairs have remained intact. Other chromosomes apparently differ by Robertsonian translocations and inversions. The conservation of these karyotypes is remarkable...”
Nevertheless, all too often, those unfamiliar with hybridization dismiss the possibility of a cross without empirical evaluation. The only unprejudiced way of resolving this issue in the present case is to mate a raccoon with a cat and then to see whether anything results (or to carry out artificial insemination). Genetic evaluation of existing Maine Coon cats in connection with this question might be difficult because, if they actually are of hybrid origin, they are probably the products of repeated backcrossing to cat (later-generation backcrosses are difficult to detect via genetic techniques).
A brief notice about a cat-raccoon hybrid appeared page 5 of the December 27, 1906 issue of The Lehi Banner, a newspaper published in Lehi, Utah (source). It read as follows:
The following is a list of reported cat crosses. Some of these crosses are much better documented than others (as indicated by the reliability arrow). Indeed, some might seem completely impossible. But all have been reported at least once. The links below are to separate articles. Additional crosses, not listed here, are covered on the cat hybrids page.
Human Origins: Are we hybrids?
On the Origins of New Forms of Life
Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?
Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology