Wildlife and dogs: Keep your dog safe!

This is the time of year to be outside with your dog. The rain and cold ease up, the sun comes out, and babies are born in the wild. With human and dog populations expanding into more rural areas, there are more wildlife encounters than in the past, and these don’t always end well for our dogs or our wildlife.

Although this blog post focuses on avoiding injuries to our dogs, it’s also important to respect and protect our wildlife. They have every right to protect their young and their homes. Ultimately, if we prevented our dogs from threatening wildlife, our dogs’ risk would be greatly reduced. To put it in perspective, as of April 2023, the Whatcom County Wildlife Center of WHS (in Washington State) has seen 300 wildlife injuries and deaths, many attributable to dogs. This spring, as with last, Alysha Evans, manager of the Wildlife Center, is concerned about dogs running free on Whatcom County beaches and attacking and chasing baby seals who have been temporarily left alone while their mothers forage for food. It is also cottontail season, and the Wildlife çenter is seeing many rabbits who have been killed or injured or had their nests destroyed by dogs. It is just as important to keep wildlife safe from our dogs as it is to keep our dogs safe from wildlife.

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Birds of Prey: I spoke with Sharon Wolters, director of Sardis Raptor Center in Whatcom County and she shared the following information with me:

Eagles: Apparently it’s not unusual for eagles, hawks, and large owls to carry off small dogs for food. Eagles can lift their weight (eight to eleven pounds) in their talons, but even if their prey is too heavy to lift, they can still kill it. Eagles can grip with 200 pounds of pressure per square inch and have a ratchet system in their feet. This means they can squeeze tighter and tighter with their talons, but can’t release their grip until their bodies relax. Because of this, even large dogs can be badly injured by eagles if they are targeted.

Owls can attack and carry off small dogs any time of day, but they are typically nighttime predators. They can swoop in silently and snatch a small dog with unnerving speed even if the dog is leashed. If the owner is not being attentive, they might not even know what happened to their dog.

The reverse is also true. Both eagles and owls can fall prey to dogs. In her Raptor Center, Sharon has seen eagles, hawks, and owls badly injured or even killed by dogs–a huge tragedy for these magnificent birds.

How to protect your dogs from birds of prey:

  • Keep small dogs on leash–always. Allowing small dogs to roam off leash even a short distance away on a trail or in a field can put them at risk.
  • Do not leave small dogs unattended outside, ever. They are at risk of attack not only from raptors, but from raccoons, deer, and coyotes.
  • Consider a Coyote vest to protect your small dog from coyote and raptor attacks.
  • Keep small dogs close to you when walking at night.
  • Don’t allow big dogs to roam free, and even if your yard is fenced check on them regularly and bring them inside at night and when you leave home.
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Raccoons: Raccoons are a common inhabitant of our neighborhoods, both rural and urban. Although they don’t usually attack dogs if unprovoked, they will protect themselves if cornered, or if their young are threatened. Raccoon injuries can be severe, leading to eye damage, punctured lungs, abdominal punctures, and urethral damage according to Dr. Eric Barchas of Dogster Magazine. They can also carry bacteria harmful to dogs and humans, including rabies in some states, though in Washington State this is not the case.

To avoid confrontations with raccoons:

  • Don’t allow your dog outside unsupervised after dark, even in a fenced yard.
  • Check your yard before allowing your dog off leash at any time of day. Vera, our predatory German shepherd, snatched a raccoon cub at midday when I was only a few feet behind her.
  • Don’t allow your dog to sniff inside culverts. Raccoons seek shelter there.
  • Don’t leave food outside at night–human, dog, cat, or bird food are fair game and will encourage raccoons.
  • Don’t intentionally feed raccoons.
  • Be sure your dog’s vaccinations are up to date. Raccoons are a prime carrier of rabies in some states.
  • If your dog gets into a scuffle with a raccoon, get her to the vet ASAP.
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Deer: Deer are also common in both urban and rural communities, and at this time of year, the does are likely to have fawns. Since fawns have very little odor, they are left in a safe haven by themselves until they are old enough to run from predators, and the does stand guard at a distance. In areas where deer have lost their fear of humans and dogs, they have been known to attack dogs to protect their fawns. I have been followed on several occasions by does while walking my dogs in the neighborhood in the spring, and two of my clients’ dogs have been attacked by deer–one dog was trampled to death. Deer are large, their hooves are sharp, and they can do a lot of damage.

Keep in mind that many dogs are lost and/or injured each year chasing deer, and there is no good way to get an injured dog to your car without help. Even dogs under 25 pounds can be challenging to move if the dog needs to be carried more than a few hundred feet. Also, young fawns are completely helpless and easy prey, but even adult deer can be brutalized and killed by dogs.

To avoid deer attacks:

  • Keep your dog on leash in the areas deer frequent, if your dog has a prey drive (most dogs do), or if your dog wanders far from you on trails.
  • If you walk your dog off leash, train him to stay near you on the trail, and be sure he has a good recall. Hire a trainer for help if necessary.
  • If you see a deer, leash your dog, bring her close to you, and keep her on your side away from the deer.
  • Ideally, retrace your route and avoid the area. Her fawn could be close by.
  • If possible, prevent your dog from barking by using treats, blocking your dog from seeing the deer, or by walking away. Barking seems to trigger deer attacks, probably because the sound raises the level of threat.
  • Do not feed deer.
  • Become familiar with deer body language. Dropped ears and a tightly tucked tail, lowered head, and a stiff gait seem to be the most common warning signs that a deer is stressed and might aggress if you don’t back off.
  • Check your yard before letting your dogs outside even if your yard is fenced, to protect both the deer and your dogs. I had a friend who watched a deer jump her fence and trample her small dog–presumably because the deer’s fawn was nearby–so I would not recommend leaving small dogs in the yard unsupervised.
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Coyotes: As with deer and raccoons, coyotes share our neighborhoods in increasing numbers as we encroach on their habitat. Although they are fascinating and intelligent animals that live either as solitary creatures or in family groups, coyotes have been known to kill and injure not only small dogs, but medium and large dogs as well. They also carry diseases which can be harmful to our dogs, including rabies in some states, though in Washington State this is not the case. Rachel Bangert, DVM, has treated several small and large dogs with severe injuries from coyotes over the years. Small dogs are more likely to be killed by coyotes.

To avoid coyote attacks:

  • Coyotes can not only scale fences up to six feet high, they can also dig underneath them, so I don’t recommend leaving small dogs outside unattended unless you have secure fencing. (And in light of the raptor risk, that includes having the area covered.)
  • Keep dogs leashed if you know there are coyotes in the area. Lola, our twelve year old golden, was lured into the woods by a coyote (a full account of her adventure is described in my novel, Finding Vera) and I was lucky to get her back unharmed.
  • Work on your dog’s recall if you plan to walk your dog off leash. Hire a trainer to help you with this if you need to.
  • Pay attention to your dog’s body language when you’re out walking (call your dog back if he alerts) and reward frequent check-ins with a high-value treat.
  • Consider a coyote vest for your small dog.
  • If you see a coyote when you are walking:
    • Leash your dog. Your dog might bark to warn the coyote away. Coyotes and dogs can apparently communicate, so this could be successful. Don’t allow your dog to interact with coyotes pups or adults.
    • Don’t run away as the coyote might see you as prey.
    • Make yourself as big as possible.
    • Make noise–use of an airhorn, shaking a can with rocks in it, shouting etc. can work well to scare off coyotes.
    • Maintain eye contact.
    • Back away slowly.
    • If your dog has a scuffle with a coyote, have her checked at the vet ASAP.
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Squirrels: Squirrels seem like odd creatures to include here, but although they are delightful, intelligent, remarkable animals, they are also bold and can deliver quite a bite to a dog’s face if the dog gets too close, especially if the squirrel is cornered. They can also be swiftly killed and eaten by your dog depending on your dog’s prey drive and intent. Vera, our shepherd, could kill a squirrel before we even saw it, whereas Annie, our collie, tiptoes after them with a quizzical look on her face. Although squirrels don’t carry rabies, their bites can be deep and become badly infected.

To avoid squirrel bites:

  • Don’t allow your dog to chase squirrels, especially if there is a chance they could be cornered.
  • Be careful if you have bird feeders as they will attract squirrels.
  • Keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date.
  • If your dog is bitten by a squirrel, wash the bite well and take your dog to the vet ASAP.

Thoughts on risk vs. lifestyle

As we all know from dealing with Covid for the last three years, maintaining a balance between common sense and safety is important, and everyone has different ideas about what that means. I’ll share with you what I do to keep Annie and wildlife safe from each other, though after doing research for this article I have become more cautious. Annie spends a good two hours a day in the yard unsupervised, and she hikes off leash with us almost daily. We handle the risk of wildlife interactions by assessing the risk of the environment, by keeping Annie close to us on trails, by watching her body language carefully during hikes, and by paying attention to reports of wildlife in the areas we frequent. She also has a good recall 90% of the time, and has been taught to stay on the trail.

I leash her or bring her indoors under the following circumstances:

  • If she’s alerting on trails–I’m concerned not only about wildlife, but also about dogs or people who might be uncomfortable being greeted by an off-leash dog.
  • If she’s showing reluctance to continue along a trail. Experience has shown that there is always a good reason for this behavior.
  • If she’s shown anxiety on our early- morning neighborhood walk, if I’ve seen new coyote scat near our house, or if I’ve seen a deer nearby in spring and early summer, I’ll bring her indoors rather than letting her stay in the yard by herself
  • We check on her frequently, never leave Annie outside if we are leaving the house, and any time she barks, we check on her, both to stop her from barking, and to be sure there’s no wildlife close by.