With their Zorro masks and dainty paws, raccoons are pretty darn cute — unless you find one using those agile little mitts to pick veggies from your backyard garden or raid your pantry. 

Raccoons love living near humans, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They like the fresh vegetables and fruits growing in our yards and enjoy helping themselves to the seeds we leave out for birds. And they’re wily: They can get into our cupboards through uncapped chimneys and openings in the sides of our homes. We may call it breaking and entering. To a raccoon, however, it’s all in a day’s work.

Raccoons make lousy houseguests. They can do a lot of damage by chewing and destroying things in the home. Some may have rabies. And even if a resident raccoon isn’t sick, it will leave behind droppings that may contain roundworms and their eggs.

How to evict a raccoon

If you suspect a raccoon has moved into your home, first figure out how it got in. Walk around the outside of your house and look for holes. If you see any, stuff them with wadded up newspaper. After two or three days go back to see if the newspaper has been moved. If it has, that’s likely where your unwanted visitor gained entry. 

Related: Getting Rid of Skunks — and Skunk Smell

Whatever you do, don’t try to catch a raccoon yourself. According to HSUS, touching any wild animal can put you at risk of a bacterial infection called leptospirosis that can lead to kidney damage, meningitis or worse.

Try coaxing the critter out by blaring loud music and turning on bright lights. This won’t endear you to your neighbors but it may do the trick. The best time to do this is at dusk. Because raccoons are nocturnal, they’ll be up and active come nightfall.

Another option: Place a bowl of cider vinegar close to where the raccoon has taken up residence. Raccoons don’t like the smell, so a little aromatherapy may drive your unwanted guest away.

To send a raccoon packing pronto, call your local animal control office. If that’s not an option in your town, contact the police or a wildlife management removal company.

The one time you may want to put off kicking out a raccoon: If you spot a mother with her babies, HSUS says the humane thing to do is to wait a few weeks for the babies to grow. If baby raccoons are separated from their mom, they may not survive.

Related: What to Do If There’s a Bat in Your House (and How to Keep Bats Out)

Protect your pets

Some dogs and many cats will go into hunting mode if they know a four-legged invader is in their home. It’s your job to protect your pets. Most cats and many dogs can get hurt by wrangling with a raccoon. Keep your pets away from where you suspect a raccoon may be hanging out until you’re sure you’ve chased it away or it’s been removed by a professional. And make sure your pets are up-to-date with their rabies shots.

Lay out the “unwelcome” mat so raccoons don’t come back

Immediately close off the opening in your home where the raccoon got in, as well as any others you may have discovered. You can do this by blocking the holes with heavy wire mesh, sheet metal or metal flashing. If you go with mesh, HSUS recommends using at least 16-gauge wire mesh. You may want to hire a professional to do this; in the long run it will probably save you money.

To get rid of anything (especially droppings) that the raccoon left behind, your best bet is to hire a professional pest removal service. If you’d rather do it yourself, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers detailed guidelines for cleaning up a raccoon latrine.

Finally, don’t invite more trouble. According to the CDC, you can send the “No Raccoons Allowed” message by not leaving out food, keeping garbage bins tightly closed, covering sandboxes (raccoons often view these as litter boxes) and removing bird feeders and water sources.

Check your yard for piles of wood, brush or anything that could be transformed into a den for a family of raccoons. If you do keep firewood on your property, make sure it’s several yards away from your home.

Related: What to Do if You Encounter a Coyote in Your Neighborhood

Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, FamilyCircle.com and other leading publications. She blogs at Pet News and Views.