Their cute and cuddly appearance may have gained them a legion of fans on social media, but the RSPCA has now called for the sale of tanukis - also known as racoon dogs - to be banned.
The charity has confirmed that the creatures, which are native to Japan, Siberia and China, have already escaped into the wild and are posing a threat to British wildlife.
And there are fears that tanukis, which harbour high levels of parasites, could also infect humans, in some cases with lethal results.
Now the Government has said it “takes the threat of this species seriously” and will investigate any reported sighting of the creatures.
Conservationists fear that the so-called racoon dogs could begin to breed in the wild, creating a population explosion which threatens to overwhelm weaker native species.
Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA wildlife and exotic specialist, said: “We know that some raccoon dogs are now living wild in Britain, and there is a risk that they could start to breed.
“We want the authorities to ban the sale of these animals as pets. They are simply not suitable, and they are escaping and getting out into the natural environment.”
Tanukis come from the canine family but are closer to foxes than dogs in their behaviour and scavenging eating habits.
In Sweden tanukis are already regarded as pests to be hunted down and eradicated because of the threat they pose to the country’s wildlife and habitat, particularly amphibians and ground nesting birds.
Around 9,000 of the creatures were released by biologists 80 years ago into western parts of the former Soviet Union to be hunted for their fur.
Their spread across Finland and Scandinavia has forced Sweden to set up a hunting programme to cull them wherever they appear.
The RSPCA fears that if something is not done now to tackle the problem Britain may find itself in facing a similar crisis.
Dr Clubb said: “They do compete with natural species in the area such as other predators or large mammals such as other dogs, badgers or foxes. They compete for the same food sources or den sites.
“They also pose a disease risk, they could introduce rabies and they can carry some parasite species. They are seen as a threat to the natural species that are there.”
Among the parasites tanukis are known to carry is the fox tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, which can be fatal if untreated in humans and has silent incubation period of up to 20 years.
Per-Arne Åhlén of the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management, who leads the effort to eradicate them in that country, warned.“There’s a high risk that Great Britain already has an emerging population, and that, I can promise you, will not be good for its amphibian life.
“In an island country like the UK, you should do anything within your power to keep them out.”
The growing popularity of raccoon dogs as household pets in Britain has its origins in their appearance on social media.
In one case, in 2015, a Japanese owner rescued an abandoned tanuki and chronicled his efforts to care for the animal, which he named Tanu, on Twitter.
今日のタヌ飯！最近は青魚や海藻が多くなってるタヌ飯。今日も大サービスで焼き鯖の腹身1/4。丸呑みしないで少しずつ千切ってカミカミするタヌキに脂ぎった切り身をそのまま与えると、部屋中食卓気分で持っては置いてを繰り返すので、ほぐして炊きたてご飯に混ぜ混ぜしてかさ増ししてます。 pic.twitter.com/S5sk6acWqM— ことり (@chibi_tori) March 16, 2017
His photographs of Tanu curled up in front of a fire or eating from plates spread quickly and had soon attracted more than 11,000 followers.
British owners have spoken of taking their tanukis for walks on a lead, with many pet buyers mistakenly regarding them as a breed of dog which can be domesticated. Some are available to buy online for as little as £150 on internet websites.
But the reality is far from cute, says the RSPCA.
“People might think 'I could just keep them in my living room and keep them as a dog but they're wild animals and need large areas and people just don't know how to look after them,” said Dr Clubb. “They can be aggressive, some don't like to be handled or touched. They may run away or escape. It's a nightmare trying to re-home them - when we hear one has come in we all just sigh.
“People might think 'I could just keep them in my living room and keep them as a dog’, but they're wild animals and need large areas and people just don't know how to look after them.”
The RSPCA last year received 15 complaints about raccoon dogs and rescued three, up from four complaints and two rescues in 2015.
Increasing evidence has emerged more recently that tanukis have been released into the wild, possibly by owners who could not cope with their wild behaviour.
In January this year the charity was contacted over a raccoon dog found with a trap locked onto ther front leg in near Glossop, Derbyshire. It is thought she had been kept as an exotic pet before being dumped.
It is offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to release these animals, or allow them to escape, into the wild because they are regarded as an invasive species not native to the UK.
The charity warned that any increase in the number of raccoon dogs being kept as pets is likely to lead to more of them being abandoned, making it more difficult for suitable homes to be found.
An RSPCA spokesman said: “It is difficult for the RSPCA to find suitable homes for raccoon dogs, where all their needs are met and they can express their natural behaviours, which are the same as their needs and behaviours in the wild.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “There is no evidence of raccoon dogs being established in the UK. We take the threat of this species seriously and take swift action to investigate any reported sighting.
“It is important we take action to address the threats posed by invasive non-native species. They threaten the survival of our own plants and animals and cost the economy at least £1.8 billion a year.”