Dog Safety: Protect Your Pet From Semi-Urban Wildlife

Here are five things to remember about wild animals that inhabit the same areas as humans.

Helen Fazio  |  Dec 21st 2012


Have you had any close encounters of the wild kind? My Shih Tzu, Raja, certainly has. Foxes, for one, have been introduced into New Jersey to entertain the hunt clubs, and the rascals have wisely moved closer to private homes and farther from the copses and meadows where they are hunted.

While our yard is safer for the foxes, it’s now less safe for Raja. A few weeks ago, I caught him staring back at a pair of shining eyes glowing at him from the edge of the woods.

Many wild animals have adapted to urban encroachment, and even found ways to benefit. In Malibu, I had to shoo a possum away from Raja’s snack outside a nice beachside hotel. In Burbank, he almost walked smack into one. While they make for cute stories, these encounters are not desirable, and they could end badly.

Urbanites and suburbanites have a high tolerance for wild animals creeping through the quiet streets at dawn and dusk — as long as they’re the cute or impressive kind, and as long as they leave pets alone. Raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, and even coyotes are the subject of wonderment and joy, especially if they let you see their young. The fact that we do not have every North American animal on the endangered list is a very good thing, and living with our pets’ wild cousins is a kind of benevolent cohabitation.

But should we really expect to cohabit? Maybe from behind the windows. Outside, you will want to take real precautions to keep your dog away from her distant cousins.

Your dog, indirectly or directly, comes from ancient wolves, an alpha predator. But years of evolution and crossbreeding have turned the wolf into the Maltipoo lounging in her little pink bed. She’s now a snack for her predatory cousins. Even the animals the wolf would have preyed upon, like foxes, are a danger to the domestic dog, should she get too close.

Under attack, it is unlikely that your dog (even your big dog), will have the reflexes and aggression to hold her own if the predator really means business. The dog just doesn’t understand hunger the way a wild predator does. In a tussle, your dog is defending her yard, her bed, and her nightly treat. The predator is staying alive.

Here’s what to look out for around your home:

1. Garbage buffets

Once a week, every neighborhood sets out a feast for feral animals. Human garbage is gourmet fare for wild animals. Our distaste for our own garbage makes us careless with packaging and even more careless with closing garbage can lids tightly.

Last week in California, Raja surprised a possum that was trotting out for his nightly feast from the overfilled garbage bin. Raja isn’t aggressive, and he kind of liked the looks of the possum. But possums will bite a strange animal that gets close, and they have an awful lot of really sharp teeth. So stop the buffet. Close lids tightly. Set garbage out on the morning of pickup. Do not let the smorgasbord sit by the roadside all night.

2. Burrows and nests

Wild animals adapt to encroaching urban features. As long as wildlife is protected from human harm by law, adventuresome wild animals will find a way to coexist. Bears in New Jersey have been hibernating under backyard decks of tract homes in developments. Generations of raccoons have established themselves in Central Park in New York City. Coyotes emerge from their lairs in the Verdugo Mountains and trot down the hill into the streets of Burbank, California, for their nightly hunting and gathering.

If you have a wooded backyard, are located near a wooded easement, or live near a golf course or a canal, expect that wild animals of all kinds will be nesting nearby.

3. Twilight

Dawn and dusk are feeding and prowling time for wild animals. They see better than their prey at the margins of day and night, because the eyes of predators have extra rod cells, which function best in low light and increase nighttime acuity. You guessed it: Nonpredators do not have extra rods. This is why you don’t see so well when walking your dog at dawn before work or at dusk in winter when you get home.

Your dog sees much better than you do, but your dog probably is just about as unwary and carefree as you are, because your dog is a pet, not a predator. Be vigilant with your pet at twilight to avoid bad encounters. Scan the margins of your territory to look for the shining eyes of predators. It’s actually the rods that make them look so bright.

4. A badly maintained grill

Oh, anything we leave on the grill will just burn off, right? I mean, it will either burn off as the grill cools or burn off when we light the grill again. That’s the beauty of a grill. You don’t have to wash a pot.

Well, one reason grills smell (and, in fact, do need to be cleaned), is that the buildup of burned fat remains in crevices. You and I may not find aged, burnt fat appealing, but wild animals love it. In fact, fat is their first defense against the cold in winter. Fat is good food.

It’s better to clean the grill than to find a raccoon up under the cover licking the belly of the grill oven when you and your dog go out to make yourselves a Saturday night steak. Surprised wild animals always defend themselves, after all.

5. Rabies

While not all wild animals are rabid, wild animals account for 92 percent of all rabies cases. While small mammals, like mice, quickly succumb, larger mammals can hang on and infect others for weeks. Bats can carry rabies, but are immune to the effects. Your dog should not make any wild animal friends.

Maybe in a few hundred years, the wild animals that lurk at the margins of urban life will have evolved to be a little more docile, like the feral dogs of India and the Caribbean, or even charming, like the singing wild dogs of New Guinea. Maybe. For now, as we build more and more toward previously wild spaces, we should be very cautious to avoid encounters between wild animals and our pets.

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