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Protecting Your Pets from Coyotes

We were extremely saddened to read about the family’s small dog that was killed by a coyote in Chesterfield a…

We were extremely saddened to read about the family’s small dog that was killed by a coyote in Chesterfield a couple of months back. How tragic. Our hearts go out to the family who is no doubt devastated by their loss. Earlier in the month, a coyote was found hiding underneath a car in Carytown – only a few feet from an apartment building housing small children and pets. He did not harm anyone, but that is just too close, isn’t it?

You may be surprised to learn how plentiful coyotes are in our area. In fact, if you google “coyotes in Virginia,” you will be amazed at how many sightings there have been. The population of coyotes in Virginia has grown over the past 20 years. In 2016, we published a blog about protecting your pet from wildlife in which we mentioned that the coyote population is on the rise in Virginia.

When and where might you see a coyote?

You may be thinking, “I don’t know about that… I’ve never seen a coyote.” Ahhh, but they are the masters of stealth. They are sneaky and quiet. According to the Humane Society of the United States, coyotes can live a long time in close proximity to humans without ever being noticed.

Many people believe that seeing a coyote during the day means it must have rabies and is cause for alarm, but that is not true. There are certain times of the year when a coyote is more likely to be sighted. It may be during coyote mating season which runs from January through March. In May through June, they may be out hunting for food for their young pups. Then it is possible to see them again from September through November when their young start leaving the pack.

We once had a young coyote that would bed down at the edge of our property line in our Chesterfield neighborhood. It would not come any closer to our home so we were not alarmed. It was only there maybe three non-consecutive days, and then we never saw it again. Adult coyotes will sleep anywhere – often right out in the open, but they do try to pick places where humans do not frequent.

What does a coyote look like?

I watched a video of a coyote in a park in Chicago out scavenging for food and I swear, from a distance, it looked so much like a German Shepherd that I could have easily been fooled. When I think of coyotes, I envision very skinny canines, but the one in the video was a healthy weight. An adult coyote will usually weigh around 30 -40 pounds and are about 24 inches tall. German shepherds weigh much more: 85 – 95 pounds but are only a couple of inches taller than a coyote.

Coyotes have pointed ears, and a bushy tail. The biggest difference between them and a German shepherd is their longer, pointed muzzle and flat forehead. Their coloring is sort of like a German shepherd too… a brownish-gray, sometimes with a reddish tint, with “tips” of black. They can be gray, tan, brown – even white, depending on where they live. Coyotes appear to have longer legs, but that is probably because they have a more shallow chest than a dog, creating an optical illusion.

Here’s something interesting: Years ago, German shepherds were used for protecting and guiding sheep. Sheep are instinctively afraid of anything that looks like a wolf or coyote, so German shepherds were purposely bred to resemble a wild dog – like a wolf or coyote. No wonder there is such similarity!

What to do if you encounter a coyote

It is unlikely a coyote will come towards you. They avoid human contact. However, their constant existence in our neighborhoods has caused some to lose their fear of people. If you do see one looming nearby, they are probably just looking for food. Coyote attacks on people are very uncommon.

Oh, BTW, don’t feed them. The USDA discourages the feeding of any wild animal. Sure, they are kind of cute and look like a dog, but just remember – they are wild animals. Wild animals that acquire food from people can become aggressive. When that happens, coyotes can be dangerous, meaning they may have to be killed to protect people.

If a coyote does make an appearance, the best way to make them back away is by making a whole lot of noise. Yelling, waving your arms, clanging things together, stomping, whatever you can do. If you have a water hose nearby, try to spray them. You can also throw things like sticks or cans, not to hurt them, only to scare them. Make yourself look big and intimidating by standing tall with full, open, waving arms. Never run away from them. Continue “hazing” until the animal leaves the area completely.

Protecting your Pets

Generally, coyotes eat small mammals like mice, rats, voles, rabbits, birds, squirrels, and even reptiles. But they are “opportunistic eaters” and will eat nearly everything including household garbage, insects, garden vegetables, birdseed, fruit, or whatever else is available. Will they eat your pet? Well, they prefer not to eat other carnivores, but yes, they sometimes do.

Small dogs and cats are most vulnerable to coyote attacks. For that reason, they should never be allowed outside unattended. Even in your own yard, your pet can be at risk. The best way to protect your pet is to keep them on a leash and remain vigilant while outdoors. I know, it is so nice to give your dog the freedom to wander and play off-leash, but if a coyote population lives nearby, it is definitely safer to keep your pets leashed.

Coyote attacks on larger dogs are rare, but it could happen if the coyote feels that the dog is invading its territory or maybe threatening its pups. For that reason, it is particularly important to keep large dogs on a leash during coyote mating season and just after their pups are born.

Safeguarding your property

Normal 4-foot-high residential fencing is not sufficient to keep coyotes out of your yard. Coyotes can jump fences even taller than 6 feet. Fencing should be at least 8 feet high, and, if possible, extend into the ground. Even so, coyotes are climbers and if something looks delectable on the other side of an 8-foot fence, they will climb over. For that reason, a chain-length fence is not the best option. A “smooth” surface, maybe like a PVC privacy fence, would be better so the coyote is not able to get a foothold.

There is also something clever called a coyote-roller. It is placed at the top of a fence to prevent coyotes from getting the foothold they need to climb over the fence. It is a humane coyote prevention and control strategy.  Here is a good article on coyote-proofing your yard with fencing, containing a good picture of a coyote-roller too.

Contrary to popular belief, coyotes are not nocturnal. In other words, our pet is not protected in their own yard just because the sun is out. Coyotes are naturally “diurnal” (most active at dawn and dusk). However, they often behave as if they are nocturnal when living among people. They really don’t want to encounter us.

Here are a few more ideas that will keep your pets and home safe from attracting coyotes:

  • Never leave pet food and water outside.
  • Make sure your garbage cans have tight-fitting lids.
  • If you compost, make sure it is covered.
  • Keep your outdoor grill clean… they love the smell of meat.
  • Keep your shrubbery and bushes trimmed back so it is uninviting for a coyote to bed down.
  • Block entryways under porches, inside sheds, under decks, or anywhere a coyote might be tempted to squeeze into.

Feral cats

The feral cat population is especially vulnerable to coyote attacks. This becomes particularly true when we feed the feral cats: The coyote smells the food and follows its nose right to the feral cat’s den. For that reason, we need to be mindful of how and when we feed the cats. The Humane Society of the United States recommends that we feed them once daily, then clean up after they eat so that no scraps are laying around. They also suggest that we feed them in an area that allows plenty of places to escape and/or hide if a coyote pays a visit.

There is one study that found that coyotes do not prey on feral cats as much as we think they do. Even in areas where the coyote population is dense, feral cats generally survive very well. The cats have learned to avoid the “natural” landscape where coyotes are active. Instead, feral cats restrict their activities to more developed areas near homes and shops. And although coyotes do sometimes come into these more developed areas, that is not their main hub. I was glad to read that.

Final Thoughts

I worked through this blog with the mindset of providing solutions to protect our domestic pets from what I perceived as a predator or a menace. Then I read an article called “The Misunderstood Coyote” and my heart sank. Just like any other animal on this earth, coyotes deserve a measure of respect. They are just doing what they’re supposed to do. According to this article, the coyote strives to “politely coexist” with us.

Through no fault of their own, coyotes are forced to live in urban areas with humans. Of course, coyotes need to hunt and feed, so we must make certain they comply with the boundaries between their living areas and ours. We do that by taking precautions with our pets and our property, without the intent of harming or eradicating the coyote. As the Humane Society so aptly pointed out, “Rather than punishing animals for natural behaviors, our goal should be to protect all creatures—domestic and wild—living among us.”

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