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

A coyote at the Edmonds Marsh. (File photo by LeRoy VanHee)

Publisher’s note: This article excerpted from a story the My Neighborhood News Network published in 2021 regarding living with coyotes. It is being republished as a reminder after a reader came across a coyote near the body of a dead cat Wednesday morning on a downtown Edmonds street.

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.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) notes on its website 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.”

Photo courtesy Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife

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.

“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.”

— By Nathan Blackwell


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