A-z - Animals

Are groundhogs dangerous?

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Every February, Punxsutawney Phil the Groundhog is woken up and pulled from his den to help us predict when spring will arrive. This Groundhog Day ritual is repeated at local zoos and celebrations across the United States. Snatching a sleeping large-toothed rodent from its den doesn't seem like a smart idea, so has anyone been bitten by a woodchuck? Do groundhogs attack people in the wild? Do groundhogs carry disease? Are groundhogs dangerous? Let's find out!

What is a groundhog?

Groundhogs (also known as marmots) are sturdy rodents that measure 18-20 inches in length.

© samray/Shutterstock.com

Groundhogs are also known as marmots. They are a medium-sized stout rodent, a little smaller than a raccoon. Adult males can reach up to 13 pounds and be about 18-20 inches long. Marmots have thick brown fur and claws that help them burrow underground. They build extensive burrows similar to prairie dogs. Amazingly, these chubby rodents can also climb trees and are excellent swimmers. They spend most of their time digging, looking for food. In the fall, they have to gain enough weight to survive the winter, and they crawl into burrows to hibernate until spring.

Where do groundhogs live?

Groundhogs live in the eastern half of the United States and most of Canada. The southern edge of their range is South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Alabama, and they don't live in Florida at all. They live in Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, and cross slightly across Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. You can even find marmots in parts of Alaska!

Are groundhogs dangerous?

Close-up of groundhog
Are groundhogs dangerous? Normally, they usually avoid people and run away if someone approaches them.

© iStock.com/Jean Landry

Groundhogs are not dangerous; they rarely interact with humans, so conflicts have rarely been reported. If you come across groundhogs, chances are they will run away. There have been some cases of people being bitten by groundhogs, but these are rare.

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Has anyone ever been bitten by a groundhog?

Yes. "Groundhog bites Wisconsin mayor's ear" was the headline after the 2015 Groundhog Day celebration. Mayor Jonathan Freund held the groundhog so close to his head that Jimmy the groundhog bit his ear. The mayor is fine, and although he may be injured, he continues with the ceremony. On Groundhog Day 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also bitten by a groundhog. Staten Island Chuck wasn't too interested in being called to forecast the weather, and he wasn't willing to budge, so Mayor Bloomberg tried to pick him up. Chuck was taken aback and bit the mayor's hand. Best practice right now is for operators to wear gloves.

Has anyone ever been attacked by a groundhog?

Yes. Groundhogs have attempted to attack humans, but this is very rare. These cases usually involve rabid marmots. In Eldersburg, Maryland, a woman was chased by groundhogs in a parking lot. Can you imagine coming out of the store with your bag, maybe looking for your keys, and a feral groundhog rushing at you? She was able to get in the car before the groundhog caught her. Normally, if a groundhog is approached by someone in a parking lot, they will run the other way as fast as they can.

Another story involved a New Hampshire man who was in his yard when groundhogs approached him. At first, the man, Gary McGrath, watched the groundhog from a distance, but the groundhog charged at him and tried to bite his leg. Pushing him back with his foot, the man realized there was something wrong with the groundhog and the man rushed into the house. Gary snapped a photo of the groundhog baring its teeth as it tried to bite through the windshield door as the deranged groundhog attacked the front door. After calling Animal Control, a worker showed up to help and removed the groundhog, but when the Animal Control worker got out of his truck, the groundhog charged at him, forcing him to Get back to the safety of your truck. Clearly, something is wrong with this poor groundhog. No one was injured in this incident.

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Do groundhogs have rabies?

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) with open mouth on tree in rain
If groundhogs live near raccoons, they can get rabies.

©Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com

Groundhogs can carry the rabies virus. The CDC maintains statistics on rabies infections and recommends that anyone bitten by an animal seek immediate medical attention. Rabies can be avoided by receiving a series of injections called a PEP series. In the United States, an average of 1-3 people die from rabies each year. Dog bites are the most common type of animal bite. Raccoons, skunks and foxes are common carriers of rabies, as are bats. Groundhogs fall into the "other wildlife" category. Animals such as squirrels, guinea pigs, and rabbits do not transmit rabies to humans, and "prairie dogs (prairie dogs) accounted for 93 percent of the 371 cases of rodent rabies reported to the CDC." So among rodents, groundhogs are the most likely to carry rabies.

Do groundhogs have sharp teeth?

Groundhog comes out of a hole in the snow
Groundhog comes out of a hole in the snow

© iStock.com/BrianEKushner

Groundhog teeth are chisel-shaped, similar to those of a beaver. They have two incisors on the top and bottom of their mouths. Groundhogs have teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives, and they wear them down by gnawing on wood.

These front teeth can come in handy for defense if the groundhog feels threatened. An example of this would include a predator invading its underground refuge. In this case, the stout rodent is capable of quite a fight, and even puts its claws and incisors to good use.

What to do if you see a groundhog?

Groundhogs may show up in your yard or on hikes, but in most cases they will run away. If someone is holding their ground or approaching you, it's best to back off and take cover. If you have a colony of groundhogs making their home in your yard, you'll want to call an animal control or pest control service to have them removed. As with all wild animals, keep your distance and never approach wild animals.

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Which animal might be safer on Groundhog Day than a groundhog?

Largest Bullfrog - Edible Bullfrog
In Snohomish, WA, they celebrate GroundFrogs Day with a giant bullfrog!

©Eugene Troskie/Shutterstock.com

In Snohomish, Washington, the town celebrates Ground Frog Day. They used bullfrogs instead of groundhogs to predict spring. Their special frog is named the Snohomish Slew, and the creative celebration takes place just days before Groundhog Day. Bullfrogs are huge! They can grow 6-8 inches long and weigh 2-3 pounds. The good news is that the Snohomish Slew has never bitten any mayors!


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Animals Endemic to North America: Groundhogs
The most famous groundhog is the Punxsutawney Phil.

© iStock.com/mirecca

about the author

I'm a wildlife conservation writer and reporter who raises awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share our planet. I graduated from the University of Minnesota Morris with a degree in Elementary Education, and I am a former teacher. When I'm not writing, I enjoy going to the kids' soccer games, watching movies, working on DIY projects, and running with Tango, our giant Labrador.

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