Image via iStock.com/AlexPapp
By Kathy Blumenstock
When spending time outdoors with your dog, it is important to be aware of the wildlife that could pose a threat to your pets. We’ve all been jarred by headlines announcing alligator attacks in Florida or similar reports of bobcat attacks, coyote attacks and even moose attacks. These news stories are stark wakeup calls to pet parents on the issue of dog safety when it comes to wildlife encounters.
“You have to be the smart one for your dog,” says veterinarian Dr. Jeanne Scarola of the Colmar, Pennsylvania, Veterinary Hospital, who specializes in emergency medicine. “If a wild animal feels threatened, anything from a snake to a moose, he is going to react.”
Dr. Scarola says she has treated dogs with snakebites and even a small dog grabbed by a swooping hawk. She emphasizes that pet parents need to be mindful of their surroundings and practice dog safety measures when out and about in nature.
Veterinarian Dr. David Payer, the National Parks Service’s regional wildlife biologist in Anchorage, Alaska, advises doing research before heading out. “It will enhance your enjoyment to know what you and your dog may find, and to know you’ll want to behave in a certain way, so that you are unobtrusive and are not impacting them at all.” He says wild animals of all kinds “need space, not selfies.”
Both Dr. Scarola and Dr. Payer stress the need to use a dog leash when hiking. “A dog should always be under strong voice control and recall, as well as a sturdy leash if there are ranging wildlife in the area,” Dr. Payer says.
Know the Wildlife You May Encounter
No matter your location, you should be prepared and know what to do if you encounter some of these regional wildlife species.
“Wild animals prefer to avoid conflict, so the behaviors we adopt can mitigate any possible problems. Keep your dog from provoking them, close to you and under control,” says Dr. Payer. “This will prevent that huge risk factor of injury and prevent your dog from harassing wildlife—in many places, it is not only dangerous but illegal for domestic animals to harass wildlife.”
Bobcats, sometimes called wildcats, can be found in southern Canada and much of the US, according to National Geographic. In the past year, bobcat attacks have been reported in Massachusetts and Arizona.
Twice as big as ordinary domestic cats, bobcats are part of the lynx family and largely nocturnal with tufted, pointed ears, a short tail and spotted coat. Their habitats range from deserts to swamps to suburbs.
“They prefer a brushy area, far away from open space,” says Harry Spiker, Maryland’s Fur-Bearer Biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. “They like places with rocky outcroppings. Bobcats are reclusive; this is not a critter that wants to be near people.” Unlike foxes or bears, bobcats do not ‘den’ under or near homes, he says.
“Their ears are spectacular… They’ll hear you long before you spot them,” says Spiker, although in more rural areas, bobcats have occasionally been spotted in backyards. “ They could be just passing through,” he says, citing the animal’s home range of about 10 square miles. “Or they could be attracted by a food source—birdseed attracts birds and squirrels. And you should never feed your pets outdoors—to a bobcat [or bear], that’s another food source.”
Spiker says he has seen bobcats up close only twice in his career—once when he was hunting turkeys and mimicking turkey calls. “That bobcat thought I was a turkey, but once he realized I wasn’t what he wanted, he was gone.”
He says that if you and your dog do encounter a bobcat, keeping your dog tightly leashed is crucial. “Some dogs have a chase instinct; no matter what’s moving, they just want to go after it, ” he says. “Make noise, loud as you can, and make yourself ‘big,’ and that bobcat will take off.”
Coyotes, part of the wolf family, reside in every US state but Hawaii and are also found in Canada and Mexico. Reported coyote attacks on dogs (and cats) during the past year include incidents in Michigan, Illinois and Virginia. Smaller than wolves, with a slender build and distinctive call, coyotes have adapted to suburban living.
“Coyotes do very well scavenging humans’ trash and making easy meals of outside pets,” says Dr. Payer. In more populated areas, coyotes are known to ingest small animals (even cats and small dogs) that are left outside at night—this is due to the lack of food sources.
According to Camilla H. Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote in Mill Valley, California, “coyotes have existed in North America since the Pleistocene age and are here to stay. Coyotes live in both rural and urban areas,” she says.
“In urban areas, coyotes are typically nocturnal, but it’s not uncommon to see them during daylight hours, especially at dawn and dusk. They provide a number of free ecological services, including keeping rabbit and rodent populations in check, controlling disease transmission and cleaning up the environment.”
Fox describes coyotes as sharing similar behaviors with domestic dogs, “including curiosity and play, which can be misinterpreted as aggressive behavior. While coyotes are naturally timid, they may view dogs as a threat to their territory or to their pups during breeding (winter) and pup rearing (spring and summer) seasons.” She cautions that coyotes may show ‘threat displays’ such as baring their teeth or hunching their backs, but adds that “these displays are intended to scare your dog away without risking physical contact.”
If you and your dog meet up with a coyote, Fox says that staying safe is a matter of “simple, common sense precautions.” Fox advises, “Supervise your dog at all times, keeping him under full control (voice control or leash) while on a walk. If you walk your dog at dusk or dawn in a known coyote area, keep the leash short and be aware of your surroundings.”
She emphasizes that you should never allow your dog to chase a coyote. “If a coyote gets too close for comfort, you need to ‘haze’ the coyote—be ‘big, bad and loud,’” she says. “Keep eye contact, wave your arms, and make noise until the coyote retreats. Calmly leave the area and don’t run.”
Black Bear Attacks
Black bears, the most common of the bear family, live on both US coasts. As development encroaches on their habitats, there has been an increase in reported black bear encounters. “Black bears are forest animals that prefer places that are not open and have a lot of trees,” says Lynn Rogers, a senior biologist whose lifelong study of bears has included living among them.
Rogers, founder of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, says that as bears “habituate, meaning they get more accustomed to seeing more people in and around their space; they lose their fear of humans, and we see more of them in different spaces.” He calls the term ‘attack’ inaccurate, as most “encounters with bears are of a defensive nature.” He offers the example of a mother bear focused on protecting her cubs.
Rogers says the wisest thing to do is always keep your dog under control and firmly on a leash when walking in wildlife habitats. “Bears are actually afraid of dogs—and cats,” he says. “If your dog is off leash, runs off and stirs up a bear—startles her into feeling defensive—then your dog comes back to hide behind you, you are going to see the bear’s reaction as an attack, when what she is doing is expressing her anxiety.”
While the black bear diet largely consists of vegetation, they are known to scavenge for ‘people food,’ which is why we are warned never to feed them and to always clean up after a picnic in wooded areas.
Determined bears will get into homes or vehicles seeking a snack. “A bear will find its way into a locked car and tear it apart if there’s a whiff of anything edible there,” says Dr. Scarola.
To feel completely secure around bears, Rogers suggests that hikers and dog walkers carry a small canister of pepper spray, which, contrary to myth, will not anger the bear, but merely prompt it to run away from the stinging sensation.
He says that while many experts offer a variety of suggestions on what to do if you encounter a bear, he has “stopped giving advice, because whether you make loud noises or clap your hands or run away, the bear has probably seen it all before, and the only thing he wants is to be away from you. There is no record of anyone being attacked or killed when running away from a bear—what happens is the person runs in one direction, and the bear takes off in the other.”
Alligators are native to Florida and Louisiana, although alligator attacks have been reported in South Carolina as well. “Their preferred habitats are freshwater lakes, rivers, swamps and marshes,” says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. There have been reported alligator attacks on both humans and pets in Florida, so it is always best to be cautious around bodies of water where alligator populations are known to live.
“Alligators live in southern wetland habitats from the coastal Carolinas south throughout Florida and west into eastern Texas. They are opportunistic hunters that prey on fish, turtles, snakes, wetland birds and mammals in or at the water's edge,” says Mizejewski.
He adds that if you live in alligator territory, “don't walk pets along the edges of lakes, ponds or wetlands that might be home to these large reptiles, or let pets roam outside unattended, especially at night when alligators are most active. If you spot an alligator, simply move away from it.”
Tammy Sapp of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers additional tips for living around alligators. “Never feed an alligator—it’s illegal and causes alligators to overcome their natural wariness of people, and learn to associate people with food,” she says.
She also recommends that you keep your distance if you see one, because “alligators may look lethargic, but can move quickly. And you should swim only in designated swimming areas during daylight hours.”
While moose are regularly spotted wandering around Alaskan streets and roads, they are also known to live in Canada, northern New England, the Rocky Mountains and upper Midwestern states. The most massive member of the deer family, these tall herbivores feast on pine cones, overgrown shrubs, and when necessary, aquatic plant life.
“In Alaska, we typically find moose in brushy habitats along rivers, in wetlands, and areas that were previously burned and are regenerating with pioneering plant species,” says Dr. Payer. “These habitats provide nutritious ‘browse plants’ such as willows that moose prefer to eat.”
Moose are known to be very territorial and protective of their young, so moose attacks are not uncommon. Dr. Payer says that some dogs may try to run after a wild animal if it’s moving, and he has seen bigger breeds chase a moose.
“If a female moose has a calf, or even if she doesn’t, that can lead to a bad situation. It’s important that your dog be restrained on a leash or that you have voice control to call him back to you,” he says. “Dogs should never be allowed to harass moose. They can be trampled, as frightened moose will often strike out with their front hooves. Moose can also become aggressive and chase a dog, particularly if they have had previous bad experiences, so your dog may bring an angry moose back to you.”
Dr. Payer offers his own recent experience as a reminder to stay vigilant in moose territory. He and his year-old husky were charged by a protective mother moose on an evening walk. A moose cow and her calf “were munching on the remains of a neighbor’s garden, and we were on the road.” Between the dark brown color of the moose and the darkness of the Alaska night, Dr. Payer did not see the moose until he was about 40 feet away. “I had a head lamp on, and all I saw was the eye shine of the cow as she turned towards us. My dog, on the leash, was between me and the moose.” He did exactly what he advises you to do in a moose encounter: back away. “I quickly backed up, calling my dog to me.”
The dog obeyed, and in that moment, “the moose laid her ears back and charged. She got within about 20 feet as I continued to back away, firmly saying ‘No!’” At the last moment, the moose veered, returning to her calf, and we went on by. It happened so fast, and made me reflect on the need to be constantly aware of our surroundings.”
Injuries and Diseases Caused by Wildlife
If the worst happens and your dog is injured in a wildlife encounter, “Be prepared and treat a wound just as you would at home, or for yourself,” Dr. Scarola says. Keeping a dog first aid kit on hand while hiking with your pet “and just about any time, is something we all should do.”
The Kurgo pet first aid kit includes essentials like tweezers, sting-relief pads, cold packs, disposable gloves and a pet first aid booklet.
A severe wound means a trip to the nearest emergency vet clinic. “That may be some distance from your hike,” she says. “So know that location before you start out.”
Besides obvious injuries, wildlife encounters carry the danger of disease. “Rabies is the one we all think of first, which is why your dog’s vaccinations should be up-to-date, for both rabies and distemper,” Dr. Scarola says.
She adds that diseases like leptospirosis and many intestinal parasites such as roundworms can be transmitted to both dogs and humans when hiking wooded areas. She also recommends keeping your pet fully hydrated to prevent heatstroke.
Dr. Payer says that a first aid kit is needed “so you can flush a wound and apply bandages,” adding that a splint should “certainly be included for a backcountry kit.”
Vetericyn animal wound and skin care treatment is an antimicrobial spray that kills most strains of bacteria as well as fungi, viruses and spores. The treatment contains no alcohol and is comparable to saline for cleaning wounds.
For an efficient emergency first aid tool, the PetAg EMT first aid kit gel can seal wounds and reduce bleeding. It contains bioactive collagen, which enables an animal’s skin to heal naturally.
Pet Safety Tips for the Home Front
To keep your pet safe while spending time in your yard, Dr. Payer suggests a tall fence, which will deter most wildlife. “If you live in an area where wildlife can be a problem, a 6-foot fence will keep out bears, wolves, coyotes and moose,” he says.
Although bungee cords around trash cans may deter raccoons from scavenging, “bears and bigger wildlife will rip through a bungee cord,” says Dr. Scarola. Bear-resistant trash containers will help, Dr. Payer says, but he also recommends putting trash cans out for collection on the morning of pickup if possible, rather than letting them sit as temptation overnight.
In any region, any time of year, never store food of any kind outdoors. And as much as we may enjoy watching songbirds feast, “bird feeders are bear feeders,” Dr. Payer says. He adds that “if you have a compost heap and are in an area frequented by wildlife, you may want to rethink that. A compost heap will attract more animals than you realize.”
Keeping cats and other small pets indoors, keeping your dog on leash and never letting your pets play outdoors without your supervision allows everyone to respect and enjoy wildlife from the best perspective: an admiring distance.