Last month I wrote a post about how wildlife can impact our dogs. This month I’d like to focus on how our dogs can impact wildlife.
Life is always challenging for wildlife. Staying safe from predators, finding safe places to sleep and reproduce, avoiding traffic, and surviving the ever increasing challenges of climate change are always present. Add with the burgeoning number of dogs in the environment, the increasing human population, and our encroachment on the wilderness, one can see that doing our part to help wildlife survive is important.
One of the most difficult seasons of the year for wildlife is springtime, because not only are the young vulnerable, but adults are also more at risk due to their additional responsibilities: finding enough food to raise young, protecting territory from others, and protecting offspring from predators. During this period, they are at particular risk not just of direct attacks, but also of disruption by dogs.
Young animals are not physically as strong and agile as adults, and even once they are mobile and able to forage for themselves, they are inexperienced and more trusting. For instance, baby squirrels might allow dogs and humans to get closer than an adult would, or a baby bird might not perceive a stationary dog as a threat.
Alysha Evans, manager of Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center says that the species she sees most at the WHS Wildlife Center (Northwest Washington State) in the spring are songbirds, rabbits, and fawns. This year she also had multiple calls about baby seals being chased and attacked by dogs on the beach.
Birds: Birds cluster around and under feeders making them prime victims for dogs, cats, and other predators. In fact, The Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Rehab Center recommends against bird feeders altogether. Not only do they make birds easy targets, but feeders encourage the unnatural behavior of birds gathering together which encourages the spread of infection. Currently, with Bird Flu devastating populations of domestic fowl and now being found in some wild birds in WA state, birds that populate bird feeders are potentially at risk.*
Songbirds are those amazing creatures that fill our forests, pastures, and neighborhoods with song in the spring. They herald new growth, new hope, and without them the world would be a sadder place. They also eat insects such as mosquitoes, flies and spiders. They swarm our back yards and brighten our days. Many species such as the black headed Dark-eyed Junco, the remarkable Song sparrow, the White-crowned sparrow with its arresting cadences, the strikingly handsome Spotted Towhee, and the tiny Pacific wren which literally bursts with song, nest in low brush or even on the forest floor. This makes them easy prey for our dogs to trample, bite, or chase. Also, many fledgling birds must spend time on the ground before they take flight, and the fluttering movement of fledglings is often difficult for dogs to resist. They can be crushed by playful or stampeding paws, and can easily be bitten or killed.
Rabbits: Bunnies are also easy prey for our dogs. Even when dogs are leashed, they can grab a young, inexperienced bunny. Vera, our German shepherd, leapt into a salmonberry bush while on a six-foot leash, grabbed a baby bunny, and ate it before we even registered what had happened. Babies are less aware of their environment and more prone to attack, but adult rabbits can also be chased, caught, and brutalized by dogs. Even if they aren’t caught, a combination of extreme exertion and the stress they experience from being pursued can cause capture myopathy resulting in severe illness, inability to care for young, and death.
Deer: As I mentioned in my last blog Wildlife and Dogs: why they don’t mix, fawns are immobile for their first two weeks of life. They have no scent, so mothers can leave them unattended in a safe place while they forage for food. Although our dogs can’t smell these creatures, the fawn is completely unable to protect itself or escape being mauled if a dog stumbles upon one inadvertently. Once fawns are mobile and able to run, they can accompany their mother which makes them less vulnerable, however, juveniles and mature deer are at high risk for capture myopathy if they are chased by dogs, and even if they don’t die, does can be rendered unable to care for their young because of the severity of the condition.
Squirrels: Squirrels are also at risk for capture myopathy and at high risk for injury and death by dogs. They frequent feeders and decks which makes them easy prey for predatory dogs. Many dogs are unable to resist the bouncing gait of squirrels and are overwhelmed by an urge to chase them. Vera was obsessed with squirrels, and as an older dog, leapt six feet high into a cluster of bushes and grabbed a young squirrel in her jaws. And yes, she was leashed at the time. The squirrel did not survive.
Seals: Like fawns, baby seals are often left alone on beaches in the spring while their mothers search for food. Dogs running loose on the beach are attracted to their scent and the novelty of finding something unusual and alive, and it’s not uncommon for the pups to be chased, harassed, bitten, and even killed by dogs.
What can you do?
- Be aware of your dog’s temperament and prey drive. All breeds are predatory to some degree, but some breeds such as terriers, herding dogs, and sight hounds have a stronger prey drive than others. The prey drive sequence consists of six different behaviors: stalk, chase, catch, kill, dissect, and consume. Often dogs are hardwired for one or more parts of this sequence. For instance, our German shepherd had all six parts, from stalk to consume, while our collies only demonstrated stalk and chase. Our golden retrievers, on the other hand, had only the consume part of the sequence.
- Work with a trainer to redirect your dog’s prey drive into other constructive, brain-stimulating activities such as scent games, fly ball, treiball, or tracking. Since prey drive is hardwired, it’s almost impossible to suppress.
- Be aware of your environment. If there are bunnies, squirrels, raccoons, or birds in your yard, clear your yard by clapping your hands, then double check before releasing your dog to roam off leash.
- Keep your dog on leash on beaches in the spring and early summer when seal pups are left by their mothers. If you see a seal pup, give it a wide berth and distract your dog from barking. In fact, there are federal laws that require that we stay 100 yards away from seal pups.
- If your dog has a high prey drive for squirrels, birds, and bunnies, keep him on leash in areas where birds might nest and in areas of high bunny and squirrel populations. Don’t put bird feeders in any area your dog (or cat) can access.
- In fawning season, leash your dog in all areas where deer populations are high. Leash your dog in wilderness areas when you are on trails, especially if your dog leaves the path and crashes through the bush.
*If you choose to keep bird feeders in spite of expert recommendations, follow the cleaning guidelines recommended by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.