Raccoons are known for getting their sticky little fingers into everything. There is good reason for this “touchy-feely” behavior. Much of the information that they gather about the world around them is taken in through the sensitive tactile receptors in their paws. A relatively large proportion of a raccoon’s brain is dedicated to interpreting this tactile input. They put their sense of touch to good use while searching for food.
Raccoons rely heavily on their sense of touch to find food in dark crevices, and in murky water where their other senses afford them little help. They are so adept at identifying food items by touch that they will often pop them into their mouth without even looking at them. When raccoons forage in water, they assess each item they discover by rapidly moving their paws over it. As they turn and feel an object it is easy to imagine that they are washing it.
There are two myths that have been associated with this behavior. One is simply that raccoons prefer to wash their food before eating it. The other, a little more elaborate myth, states that raccoons have no salivary glands and must moisten their food before eating it. In reality, raccoons have well developed salivary glands and seem equally willing to eat food that is dry, moist, clean, or dirty. The supposed washing activity is more about identification than hygiene or moistness. So a raccoon that appears to be washing an object is actually just gathering information about it.
A raccoon’s constant touching, especially when associated with water, seems almost like obsessive/compulsive behavior. It may appear strange to humans who rely primarily on vision to take in their surroundings, but raccoons are simply "feeling their way through the world."