Learning to live with coyotes: Tips for keeping pets and people safe

Photo by Lee Hamilton

Early one morning several years ago, Edmonds resident Maggie Peterson let her 25-pound Boston terrier out to wander in the family’s fenced back yard so she could relieve herself. It was their normal routine to start the day, but that was about to change.

“She came back in, I got my coffee, I’m sitting reading the paper and I see movement out of my eye and I look out and walking across our back deck, like right outside our door, is a coyote – I could not believe it,” Peterson said. She quickly told her husband, whom she reported was initially skeptical until he looked out back and also saw it wandering through the backyard.

Peterson contacted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to let them know about the sighting and said she was surprised to learn that coyotes are prevalent throughout the area.

The Puget Sound region is known for its many trees, beaches, parks and natural beauty. Living with wildlife comes along with the various local habitats and wilderness areas prominent throughout the territory. Coyotes are among the wild animals that can come into contact with domestic pets and people in urban settings.

At first glance, they may resemble a German shepherd dog, but coyotes are predators that feed on smaller animals such as rodents, rabbits and birds, but can also include cats and even small to mid-sized dogs.

Coyotes are identifiable by their shorter, bushier tails that almost drag on the ground. The species is closely related to dogs but coyotes feature muzzles that are longer and narrower. Adult coyotes typically weigh 20-35 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females.

Peterson said the fish and wildlife staff member she spoke with recommended that dogs not be left outside unattended around sunset or sunrise, because those are the times when coyotes are typically most active. “We actually did way more than that,” she said. She purchased  coyote vests for the two dogs she owned at the time — Butch and Lucky– adding that “it’s quite hilarious (looking), but it has spikes all around the throat area and along the back.” Every time the dogs went into the backyard, they wore the vests. (Butch has since died but Lucky continues to wear the vest.)

Maggie Peterson’s dogs Butch and Lucky (in yellow) wearing their coyote vests. (Photo courtesy Maggie Peterson)

While the Petersons’ yard is fully enclosed by a nearly 5-foot-tall fence, she said she knows of at least two separate occasions that a coyote has gotten over the fence. In addition, a neighbor who has a doorbell camera now notifies her “every time he sees a coyote go through his front porch up our drive,” she added, “which is often.”

The state fish and wildlife department notes that coyotes live across a wide geographic range, “In Washington, these intelligent and adaptable animals now manage to occupy almost every conceivable habitat type, from open ranch country to densely forested areas to downtown waterfront. Despite ever-increasing human encroachment and past efforts to eliminate coyotes, the species maintains its numbers and is increasing in some areas.”

In the fall and winter, coyotes often become more visible as juveniles begin their search for new territories and the cover offered by vegetation becomes less dense. There are also fewer natural food resources available, which can lead to conflicts and changes in behavior.

“During the fall, sub-adult coyotes are kicked out of their family groups and have to fend for themselves for the first time. This can lead the inexperienced young coyotes into trouble such as eating garbage or cats,” said Matt Hamer, WDFW wildlife biologist for Snohomish, Island and San Juan Counties. “Coyotes may be more likely to target cats and smaller dogs during the winter if they are metabolically stressed. Coyotes also breed during late winter; during this period they become more territorial and could be more aggressive.”

Coyotes are naturally wary of people. But often, and especially in urban areas, peoples’ habits may serve to unintentionally invite coyotes into the human environment and onto their properties, which can ultimately lead to conflicts and also risks to pets.

“Many landowners and pet owners are unaware that some of their actions could be attracting coyotes,” Hamer said.

While coyotes generally don’t attack people, a study of reported incidents indicates that human behavior contributes to the problem. These include deliberately feeding them with handouts or inadvertently providing access to unsecured food sources such as garbage, pet food or livestock carcasses. Providing coyotes with food can lead them to lose their natural fear of humans and even increase aggressive behavior as they become dependent on an easy food source.

“People should never feed or approach coyotes,” Hamer said. “Feeding is the primary cause of coyote-inflicted injury.”

Coyotes conditioned to rely on human-provided sources of food can in turn become unpredictable and pose an elevated safety risk. According to the WDFW, “Once a coyote stops hunting on its own and loses its fear of people, it becomes dangerous and may attack without warning.”

Prevention is key for minimizing conflicts with coyotes, and Hamer said there are several effective steps that people can take to reduce the risk to pets and also decrease the attractiveness of their property to coyotes.

“Some of the simple but very important actions include never feeding coyotes; maintaining a clean property free of trash, waste fruit — such as (fallen) apples — and easily accessible compost; feeding pets indoors and removing outdoor pet food; never feeding or attracting feral cats; burying livestock carcasses; and properly securing poultry and livestock.”

Garbage cans and compost containers should have lids that can be tightly secured and in some cases additional measures may be needed to prevent wildlife from tipping them over and accessing the contents. Similar to not leaving unsecured pet food outside, bird feeders can also attract rodents that in turn lure coyotes onto properties where they may also prey on pets. Therefore, it’s recommended that people keep the areas under and around bird feeders clean and free of food buildup.

Although coyotes typically don’t attack humans, people shouldn’t leave small children unattended in areas where coyotes are frequently seen or heard. Immediately pick up small children and/or pets if a coyote is encountered. When coyotes do approach, the WDFW advises people not to run away or turn their back, but rather “be as big, mean, and loud as possible,” by shouting or clapping to scare the animal away and alert others nearby to its presence.

Additional tips and preventive measures recommended by the department include:

– Keeping dogs and cats indoors or in a secured area, especially from dusk to dawn when pets can be easy prey for coyotes.

– Modifying the landscape around children’s play areas such as pruning shrubs and trees several feet above ground level so coyotes can’t hide in them.

– Keeping deterrents such as a broom, hockey stick or even a pile of rocks nearby in times of increased sightings.

– Building a coyote-proof fence that can prevent the animals from climbing over or digging under it.

– Enclosing poultry in a secure outdoor pen and house.

– Keeping livestock and small animals that live outdoors confined in secure pens during periods of vulnerability including from dusk to dawn and birthing season.

While coyotes may look like dogs, it’s important to remember they are wild animals and need to be treated as such. They are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem and also help to keep rodent populations in check.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife photo

“Coyotes are nearly universally present in Western Washington with a few exceptions — they do not occur in the San Juan Islands,” Hamer said. “It is fair to say that the coyote population in the Puget Sound area is robust,” and “as people develop and move to exurban areas on the edge of the wildland-urban interface there may be an increased risk of attacks on small pets.”

Maggie Peterson said when she called in the sighting in her backyard, she was told the coyote most likely smelled that an animal (her dog) was nearby “and came looking for breakfast. We felt very lucky, because she was out in the yard by herself, that that coyote wasn’t faster,” Peterson said, or “he would have gotten her.” She said she has since learned that someone nearby lost their Boston terrier to a coyote attack.

Mountlake Terrace animal control officer Elena McKee said local complaints about coyotes are few. “I’ve had one of a dog being attacked in the back yard during summer last year,” she said, adding that “most of the calls or comments I hear are just sightings.”

McKee said she knows that coyotes have dens in the wooded areas of local parks and green belts, which they will regularly travel between.  She noted they are often curious and will watch people.

“As far as safety concerns, don’t approach or feed them,” and “bring pets indoors at night,” she added. “The biggest hazard I’ve seen is outdoor cats are easy prey.”

Lynnwood community health and safety Sgt. Justin Gann said, “We do have a handful of coyote calls in the city,” which he estimated to be, “maybe around a dozen calls throughout the year.” He added that many people will mistake them for wolves when they call and added, “we don’t have wolves over here, they are just small coyotes.”

Gann said to the best of his knowledge, “the only reason people have called about the coyotes is because they just see them. They’re usually not doing anything other than running into the woods or across somewhere. I have not heard of any personal pets being attacked within the city.”

However, to ensure pet safety, he recommended that people keep smaller dogs on leashes and noted that “allowing them to run into dense wooded areas would probably not be wise,” he said.

Peterson said a change in habits brought her peace of mind when the family lets their remaining dog Lucky out in the yard. The dog always wears his coyote vest or is on a leash. “He never goes out in the yard by himself, which is so sad because we have this great beautiful fenced-in yard,” she said.

“That coyote coming up in our yard after our dog (Butch) really just changed how we are with them —  it’s the most horrifying thing I could think of is having your dog killed by a coyote in your own yard,” Peterson added. But now “we’ve just taken care of the problem,” and “so I don’t really worry about it too much” when the family receives notifications that a coyote was spotted near their house.

For more information on how to co-exist with coyotes and other wildlife, visit the WDFW Living with Wildlife webpages here.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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