Wildlife and dogs: why they don’t mix!

This is the time of year when being outside with your dog reaches a new level. The rain and cold ease up, the sun comes out, and babies in the wild are born…or at least are more visible than they were a month ago. With human and dog populations expanding into more rural areas, there are more wildlife encounters which 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 have respect for and to protect our wildlife. They have every right to eat and 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 June of 2022, the Whatcom County Wildlife Center of WHS (in Washington State) has seen 300 wildlife injuries and deaths due to dogs in Whatcom County alone. In all of last year, they saw 200, so there has been a significant increase this year. Currently, Alysha Evans, manager of the Whatcom County Wildlife Rehab Center of WHS, is concerned that there is a major ongoing problem with dogs running free on Whatcom County beaches and attacking and chasing baby seals who have been temporarily stashed while their mothers forage for food. 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: Recently I spoke with Sharon Wolters, director of Sardis Raptor Center in Whatcom County. 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 the animal 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, so they can squeeze tighter and tighter with their talons, but can’t release their grip until they 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 took their dog.

Both eagles and owls, however, 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 ahead on the trail or in a field can put them at risk.
  • Do not leave small dogs unattended outside, ever. As you will see in the rest of this blog post, 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 them 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 inside our fenced yard when I was only a few feet behind her.
  • Don’t allow your dog to sniff inside culverts. Raccoons will often seek shelter there.
  • Don’t leave food outside at night–human, dog, cat, or bird food are fair game and will encourage raccoons. (I just caught one on our deck this morning gobbling up the birds’ sunflower seeds I had put out a few minutes earlier).
  • Don’t intentionally feed raccoons.
  • Be sure your dog’s vaccinations are up to date. Raccoons are a prime carrier of rabies.
  • 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 can run from predators, but the does will watch from a distance to protect them. Young fawns are completely helpless and easily killed by dogs, and even adult deer can be brutalized or killed by dogs. In areas where deer live closely with humans and 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 spring, and two of my clients have had dogs attacked by deer, one of which was trampled to death. Deer are large, their hooves are sharp, and they can do a lot of damage.

Many dogs are lost and injured each year when they chase deer, and there is no good way to get an injured large or medium-sized dog to your car without a lot of help. Even dogs under 25 pounds can be challenging if the dog needs to be carried more than a few hundred feet.

To avoid deer attacks:

  • Keep your dog on leash in the areas deer frequent, if your dog ventures far away from you on trails, or if your dog has a prey drive (most dogs do).
  • If you walk your dog off leash, train him to stay near you on the trail, and to have a good recall. Hire a trainer for help if necessary.
  • If you see a deer, leash your dog, bring her close to you, and put her on the 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 it 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 it is fenced both to protect the deer and your dogs. A friend watched a deer jump her fence and trample her small dog–presumably because her fawn was nearby–so I would recommend not 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 (a small animal vet and bird specialist and volunteer vet for Sardis Raptor Center in Whatcom county for thirty years), has treated several small and large dogs with severe injuries from coyotes. 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 take 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 are out walking and reward frequent check-ins by your dog 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 with the intent of warning the coyote away. Coyotes and dogs can apparently communicate, so this could be successful.
    • Don’t allow or encourage your dog to interact with the coyote, even coyote pups.
    • Don’t run away as the coyote might see you as prey.
    • Make yourself as big as possible.
    • Make lots of noise–use of an airhorn, shaking a can with rocks in it, shouting etc. can work well.
    • 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, and 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 instinct. (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.) We have bird feeders on our deck, and the squirrels have no fear when they are gorging on sunflower seeds. Although squirrels don’t carry rabies, their bites can be deep and could 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 two and a half years, maintaining a balance between common sense and safety is important, but 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 I have to admit that after doing the research for this article I will be more cautious in the future. 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 we’re walking in, by keeping Annie close to us on trails, by watching her body language closely 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 us that there is always a good reason for this.
  • 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.