Spring brings sunny skies, pleasant temperatures, St. Patrick’s Day revelry, Easter celebrations and April Fools’ Day pranks. It’s also the season for baby birds, bunnies, fox kits, coyote pups and other young wildlife, who often have protective parents nearby. And for those who spend winter cooped up indoors, spring means spending more time outdoors with our pets — in backyards, neighborhood parks and area hiking trails.
During spring and throughout summer, our pets are more likely to encounter wildlife than during any other season (unless your dog is a hunting dog). Unfortunately, not all pet-wildlife encounters end well — for your furry companion or the wild animal. To help protect your pets and local wildlife from each other, here are six safety precautions to take:
- Know which wild animal species inhabit your area.
Most of us would be surprised to learn how many different animals we share our communities with, especially if we don’t live in a rural area. Beyond squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and songbirds, our cities and suburbs are home to raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys, eagles and many others. (Check out this fascinating video from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences featuring a fox pair and their litter!) By knowing what types of wildlife are nearby, you can take appropriate steps to “animal-proof” your yard and learn what to do in the event you and your pet encounter wildlife while out and about.
- Always keep your dog on a leash (unless they are in a fenced yard or at an off-leash dog park).
While it’s tempting to let your dog run free while hiking, even a well-trained dog may not be able to resist chasing after a rabbit, squirrel or deer. They also could encounter a potentially more dangerous animal such as a coyote, cougar, moose or bear, and if your dog chases after one of these animals, it could escalate the encounter into an attack. Even if your dog doesn’t chase or injure a wild animal, they could damage a nest or den that results in young birds or animals being abandoned. Keeping your dog on a leash will not only protect wildlife but will also ensure their safety in the event of a wildlife encounter.
- Keep your cat indoors (unless they wear a harness and leash or hang out in a catio).
Many pet cats retain a strong prey drive and, as a result, are a threat to songbirds, rabbits, chipmunks and other small mammals. While we tend to think of cats as predators, they’re also prey for some larger species, such as coyotes, foxes, cougars and even bald eagles.
- Make your home and yard unwelcoming to wildlife.
The best approach to limiting a potential encounter between wildlife and your pets is to discourage animals from hanging out in your yard or around your home. Consider these practices:
- Invest in wildlife-proof trash bins and keep garbage stored in the garage until the morning of pickup. This can help keep your scavenging dog out of trouble and help stop stray cats, raccoons, opossums, coyotes, skunks and bears from scrounging through your trash for leftover goodies.
- Clean up any fallen fruit if you have fruit trees in your yard. Like many dogs, coyotes and raccoons are opportunistic feeders and will happily feast on ripened fruit.
- Keep bird feeders and the ground around them as tidy as possible. Better yet, consider storing your bird feeder overnight in a shed or garage. Birds, squirrels and other small mammals are attracted to seeds, and predators are attracted to them.
- Locate compost away from your house or in secure containers. Don’t add meat or bones to your compost pile if you want to avoid attracting coyotes, foxes, wolves, cougars, bears and other wildlife.
- Never leave pet food outside and don’t feed your pets outdoors. Even an occasional tidbit from your pet’s meal is reward enough to encourage wildlife to return looking for more easy meals.
- Bring all pets indoors when they’re not being supervised and especially at night.
Because coyotes, particularly those at home in urban and suburban areas, have flexible diets, they have been known to hunt cats and small dogs — and, on rare occasion, larger dogs. In addition, raptors such as hawks, bald eagles and even owls can swoop down and snatch your cat or small dog in the blink of an eye. When pets have been injured or worse by wildlife, it has occurred when the pet was either outside unsupervised or was roaming freely. Attacks are less likely to occur when your pet is with you.
- Keep your pet up-to-date on vaccinations and flea and tick preventives.
Wildlife can be infested with fleas and ticks, and immature stages of these external parasites can then contaminate your yard. Some species such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes can also carry canine distemper virus that can be transmitted to your dog through direct contact with an infected animal or its infected urine or stool. Raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes also serve as reservoirs for the rabies virus, which could be transmitted to your pet if an infected animal were to bite your dog or cat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bats are the most frequently reported wildlife species to have rabies. However, raccoons are the second-most rabies-infected hosts and skunks are third. Since rabies can also infect people, it’s vitally important that your pets are current on their rabies vaccinations.
Responsible pet ownership includes an awareness of wildlife
Most of the time, wildlife will shy away from us and our pets — as much as we want to avoid close encounters with them. Being a responsible pet owner means keeping our pets safe and secure from predators, but it also requires that we be good environmental stewards. While you and your pets enjoy all that nature offers this spring, be wildlife-aware. Because no matter where you and your pet live, you’re coexisting with wildlife that’s likely closer than you know.