Understanding Coyotes

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For many of us, coyotes are the most recognizable wild mammals in the Coachella Valley. Whether they instill anger, fear, admiration, or just interest, we know they are out there. Most pet owners realize that coyotes pose a threat to dogs and cats, but may not appreciate when or why. This article opens the book on coyotes, in the hope that with better understanding we can achieve a level of coexistence that minimizes the danger to our pets.

Canis latrans

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are wild members of the dog family (Canidae) and are found only in North America. They usually weigh between 20 and 40 pounds, with females being slightly smaller than males. They tend to live in small family groups but sometimes travel alone and occasionally in loose packs with multiple family units. One of their most recognizable features is the wide range of vocalization they use to communicate. Howling, usually between lone individuals, and yipping, which occurs when members of a pack re-unite, are the loudest, and are the cries we most often hear.

Before the colonization of Europe, coyotes were believed to range only on the western prairies and dry southwestern areas of North America, including Mexico. (The term ”coyote” is derived from a similar word in the language of the Aztecs.) Other than people, their natural enemies are wolves and mountain lions. But where human encroachment has significantly reduced populations of wolves and mountain lions, coyotes have thrived. They are one of the few native species that have actually expanded their range since the onset of European settlement, and now extend over most of the entire continent, from Alaska to Panama. As a species, they are very resilient. People have tried to eradicate them for decades from many livestock-producing areas, sometimes with government support, and have never completely succeeded.

Behavior and Feeding

With a basic understanding of their habits, we can make a few predictions about when and where our pets are most likely to encounter coyotes. In general, they are most active around dawn and dusk, although at certain times of the year, when food is scarce, or during breeding season, they may be seen at any time of the day. The breeding season begins in January and ends in March, a time that brings a higher number of coyote sightings, as adults wander more freely, seeking partners. This is also a time when coyotes may act territorially and potentially more aggressively toward dogs, even larger ones.

Once paired, coyotes are strongly monogamous. Usually, only one alpha male and one alpha female within a group will breed, and they form the heart of a family unit that protects a defined territory. Unattached adult or yearling males often wander the fringes of established territories. Because territorial boundaries often follow recognizable landscape features, like roads or washes, we’re more likely to see coyotes in those areas.

Following breeding and a gestation of about two months, coyotes give birth to 4 to 9 pups in an underground den, most often dug beneath rocks, trees, or dense shrubs, but sometimes in the expanded dens of other animals in open areas. Weaning occurs roughly six weeks later, which puts pressure on adult coyotes to hunt more to provide food for their growing families, and means that early summer can be a time of heightened risk to our pets.

Small dogs should be leashed and never left unattended, unless they are in a yard secured by a six foot fence that extends underground by at least six inches.

Coyotes eat a variety of foods. In fact, their adaptability in feeding is one of the keys to their success. They prefer animal meat, including rabbits, rodents, deer, birds, reptiles (even rattlesnakes), amphibians (except toads), fish, invertebrates, and insects. They will also eat fruits, vegetables, and sometimes grain. They are opportunistic and resourceful, and without access to human environments, have been known to kill and eat bobcats, as well as foxes. So, while not a desirable activity from our point of view, it is instinctive for coyotes to hunt domestic cats and small dogs, and we must expect such behavior to continue.

Our challenge lies in finding ways to eliminate their access to our pets. Cats should stay indoors, especially at night, and small dogs should be leashed and never left unattended, unless they are in a yard secured by a six-foot fence that extends underground by at least six inches. It is never a good idea to feed coyotes. It brings them into contact with us, creates an association based on food, and leads them to overcome their natural fear of people. Our best protection relies on maintaining separation from coyotes, and we should refrain from all activities that invite them into our midst. In the same vein, avoid leaving pet food outside, especially at night. Pick up fruit and fallen birdseed under feeders, and remove debris or brush that might harbor rodents. Also, for anyone feeding feral cats, remember that coyotes may be drawn to both the food and the cats, so place feeding stations carefully to avoid drawing them near households.

As with most wildlife, peaceful coexistence between coyotes, humans, and pets relies on minimal contact. Many of us have seen the sad outcome a coyote encounter can bring. It’s a tragedy we never want repeated, but the risk is going to remain because coyotes will continue to live among us. We probably couldn’t get rid of them, even if we tried, so we might as well get to know them better. Our protection strategies should start with increased awareness.

VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. 760-346-6103. Visit www.vcaranchomirage.com

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Robert Reed, DVM, MSES, MPA
Dr. Reed received his veterinary degree from Texas A&M University in 1993 and his master degrees in environmental science and public affairs from Indiana University in 1987. Prior to beginning his veterinary career, he worked as a teacher, and as a wildlife biologist in Michigan, Alaska, and Tamaulipas, Mexico. He is a former research fellow with World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation. Dr. Reed practiced veterinary medicine in Texas, Utah, and Nevada before establishing roots in the Coachella Valley in 2003. As Medical Director he seeks to maintain a standard of exceptional patient care, a strong commitment to client service, and a dedication to involvement with the community of Rancho Mirage.

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