The call of the wild

Wildlife + dogs can be a formula for disaster


Raccoons raiding garbage cans and moving into chimneys, birds dining on feeders and fruit, squirrels plotting to steal birdseed, opossums and skunks grazing through gardens, rabbits chomping on veggies and flowers, deer foraging on backyard shrubs — city and suburban neighborhoods are rife with wildlife that enhance the quality of life but tempt Ranger to harken back to his wild wolf days.

In spite of predictions of environmental doom and gloom when new subdivisions are built, many species of wildlife seems to recover rather rapidly and adjust well to human presence. Most critters even learn to tolerate a dog or two — or at least to plan their escape routes should Sassy or Sunny zip out the door in hot pursuit. But many dogs manage to get up close and personal with wildlife, much to their peril and the chagrin of their owners.

Hunting comes naturally to our domesticated wolves, and the kill is frequently part of the process. Dogs bred for the hunt, dogs with high prey or defense drive, and dominant dogs of any breed will stalk or chase anything that moves or squeals. No animal is safe, not the neighbor's cat or the baby robin or the nest of bunnies in the garden. Once a dog targets its prey, chemical reactions in the brain take over and the chase is on.

Chasing wild animals can be dangerous for the family pet. A dog after prey doesn't see or hear anything but the intended victim. Traffic, frantic calls from an owner, thunder, gunshots, briars, streams pale into insignificance — nothing matters but the chase. A successful hunt can bring risk as well, for the animal caught can inflict damage with teeth and claws and the animal killed can spread disease and parasites.

The hazards of the chase are obvious: the dog can be hit by a vehicle, get lost, be shot by an irate livestock owner, arrested by a dog warden, or found and adopted by another family. At best, he can avoid these dangers and come home limping, briar-scratched, skunked, or loaded with ticks, foxtails, burs, or plant debris.

The best offense is a strong defense; dogs walked on leashes and kept in fenced yards are less likely to get involved in long-distance chases. Trained dogs walked on leashes and kept inside fences are safer still.

Climbing critters

Raccoons and opossums do not respect fences, so Sunny may encounter one or the other in a nighttime stroll in the back yard. Raccoons are especially troublesome — not only can they fight a fierce battle and severely injure or kill a dog, they are brazen about tempting the pet into pursuit. During the summer, juvenile raccoons pitter patter on rooftops, set up housekeeping in uncapped chimneys, even stare into windows. They torment dogs kept in kennels and steal spilled or uneaten food whenever possible. More than one dog has destroyed a fireplace screen in an attempt to climb up the chimney from inside the house when a raccoon is in residence.

Raccoons can carry distemper and rabies and can be a disease threat to a pet dog. Rabies is fatal to dogs and people and is thus a public health threat. So, if a dog owner also enjoys the presence of raccoons, a few simple precautions are in order. First, cap the chimney. Then make sure that the omnivorous animal cannot get to dog or cat food, bird seed, or household garbage. Securely fence that garden of sweet corn so Ranger cannot meet a raccoon that is raiding the corn patch in the moonlight. Most important, protect pets — cats and dogs — with rabies vaccination as recommended by a veterinarian. In some counties and states, rabies vaccination is the law.

Raccoons are nocturnal animals; any raccoons abroad in daylight may be sick. Call the nearest humane society, game warden, or wildlife rehabilitation center to report a sick raccoon or a critter control company to arrange for trapping an invader.

Opossums are unlikely to be a disease threat to pets but they are slow-moving and easier to catch than raccoons or squirrels. Although the major part of their diet is animal flesh, possums are tempted by dry dog food berries, corn, and fleshy fruits.

While raccoons and possums are sleeping after their third-shift meanderings, squirrels punch in for the first shift. They chitter and scurry about, tempting Sassy to the chase, then hotfoot it up the nearest tree, leaving Sassy to sit in anticipation of a false step that will bring the scolding, annoying shade-tail crashing to the ground. Some dogs will park for hours under a squirrel tree, just waiting.

Squirrels don't pose a disease threat to dogs and they bring excitement into pet lives. However, a squirrel encountered on a walk can be a problem if the dog is allowed to give chase. So, when in squirrel territory, keep a tight hand on the leash.

Ground dwellers

Fences are better at keeping Ranger in than in keeping critters out. Snakes, rabbits, turtles, and toads don't climb, but they are unlikely to be deterred by the average fence. Although snakes do bite, most snakes found near human habitation are not poisonous; the biggest danger here is to the critter, not to the dog.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes are the most likely poisonous snakes in the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana (USA) area, but they tend to frequent deep woods or rocky crags in sparsely populated areas.

Most dogs will paw at box turtles and roll them around or carry them, but a few dogs will bite through the shell and kill the turtle. Box turtles can carry salmonella, a bacterial disease that causes moderate to severe intestinal distress, so they are best left alone. Snapping turtles will damage a dog if it gets too close and can even kill or seriously hurt a puppy or small dog.

Toads exude a poison that causes dogs to salivate and vomit. Most dogs will not bother a toad; those that do drop it quickly.


Songbirds flitting among shrubs, trees, and flower beds are probably the most welcome wildlife in the back yard. Birds are content with a bit of seed, some bugs, and a puddle of water for a drink or a bath and they bring hours of watching pleasure. But feeding songbirds can lead to dog -and-bird interactions, and the bird often loses. Some dogs grab fledgling birds as they practice their perching skills in shrubs and small tree or try their wings too close to the ground.

Some dogs eat birdseed, a practice that can lead to fungal infections if the seed has fermented. Owners who feed the birds should clean up spilled seed before it gets wet and rots.

Geese, and ducks can lead a dog on a merry chase. Or turn on a dog and chase him. An upsurge in populations of Canada geese makes this turn of events likely, for the honkers are particularly skilled at protecting their nests and young and can be dangerous if cornered.

Great horned owls and large hawks can pose a danger to small dogs and young puppies. Although stories of predation on dogs are rare, some attacks have been recorded.

Keeping pets safe from wildlife danger

Norma Bennett Woolf

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