Vail Pet Talk column: Dangers of wildlife interactions with your pet
It’s that time of year again — springtime. The days are getting warmer and warmer, and it’s time to start hitting the trails. This time of year is beautiful; however, it is also the time of year when we see the most harm come to our pets from wildlife. It is important to keep in mind the risks involved when our pets may be exposed to wild animals.
At our hospital, we have seen many unfortunate results of pet-wildlife interactions, from dogs covered in porcupine quills to dogs gored by mountain goats. This column explains what could happen with interactions with different species and how to minimize the risk of harm to your pet.
This time of year, coyotes are very territorial. They are giving birth to offspring and will guard a large area surrounding their dens. These animals will often make new dens under porches, on fence lines and under bushes, often in our own yards. When at other times of the year these animals will keep their distance, May through July, they will go out of their way to defend their territory, even attacking dogs three times their own size.
Coyotes are also known to attack cats and small dogs off-leash at all times of the year; this type of attack is predatory, not territorial. Until late summer, please keep larger dogs away from areas known to have coyotes. Small dogs should be kept on leash to avoid predatory attacks. Cats are at risk whenever outside unless supervised. Keeping cats indoors is the best way to keep them safe.
Moose, deer, elk, goats and sheep
These animals are known for keeping their distance; however, they can go out of their way and become very aggressive when guarding offspring. This is especially seen with moose. Cows defending their offspring have resulted in many severe trauma cases, with many dogs killed each spring and summer. Moose often attack again and again when dogs are in the vicinity of their calves.
Deer and elk have also been seen to exhibit the same behavior, often rising on their back legs and striking a dog repeatedly with their front hooves. Goats and sheep will charge an animal, causing severe trauma with their horns. When in an area inhabited by these species, especially when offspring are present, dogs should be kept close by and on-leash.
Areas with high moose populations should be avoided completely when with your pet. I have seen two dogs attacked by moose that were held close by to their owner on a leash, and in one case, the owner was also injured.
Bears and lions
Bear and mountain lion attacks are quite rare and are most often predatory, not territorial. Most attacks are on small dogs and cats. These animals typically avoid both people and dogs when on the trail. Mountain lion attacks generally occur during the winter by juvenile males without hunting experience. Bear predatory attacks are even less common and generally occur in early spring when malnourished bears come out of hibernation. Keeping small dogs on leashes and keeping cats inside is recommended to avoid attacks.
Here at high altitude, venomous snakes are relatively uncommon, although they are present along the river’s edge, especially in rocky areas such as Buena Vista and Dotsero. Please avoid rocky areas with your dog along the river. When hiking along the Front Range or Western Slope, keep in mind that rattlesnake populations are higher. If you think a snake has bitten your dog, then try to identify the snake species (safely, from a distance) and take your pet to a veterinarian immediately.
Porcupines and marmots
Although rarely life threatening, interactions with these animals can cause significant harm to your dog. Many dogs have a tendency to seek out porcupines when on trail, while others know to avoid them. When a dog attacks a porcupine, it is common for hundreds of quills to become embedded. Some dogs have to undergo general anesthesia to remove the quills, as removal is very painful and quills are often embedded in the back of the mouth and tongue. Many quills will actually break off under the skin of a dog; they can slowly migrate and cause a variety of long-term problems.
Marmots have very strong jaws, and when attacked by a dog, they will often cause severe facial lacerations requiring surgery. If your dog has a tendency to approach and attack small mammals, then it should be kept on leash when hiking.
Our pets can also cause harm to wildlife populations themselves. Outdoor cats often kill and maim wild songbird species, and many of these species are at risk of becoming endangered. Dogs off-leash can not only hurt wild animals but also can affect migration patterns and can result in abandonment of offspring.
It is very important that we balance our pets’ freedom and quality of life with the well-being of wildlife populations. When hiking, always be aware of any impact your dog may have.
Lastly, food should never be left outside for dogs or cats, as this becomes an easy meal for bears. Bears who learn to come close to homes to find food are often euthanized.
Justin Milizio, DVM, is a veterinarian at Vail Valley Animal Hospital in Edwards. Contact the clinic at 970-926-3496 if you have any questions about this article or any other concerns about your pets.