What to do if Your Dog Encounters Wildlife

By Linda Cole

For the past few months, I’ve been checking my dog pen before letting the dogs outside because an opossum has been visiting us nearly every night. I missed seeing it once, and my dog grabbed it and shook it. As soon as the marsupial sensed danger, it played dead. The tactic befuddled my dog and he promptly dropped it. My concern is for both my dogs and the opossum. I don’t want either one to get hurt, and it’s a bit uncomfortable pulling dogs away from a wild critter not knowing for sure how either one might react. Because encountering wildlife can present a problem for dogs, it’s always a good idea to know what to do in various situations.

Possums are docile animals that don’t normally pose a threat to dogs or cats. However, they can attack when provoked, sick or protecting their young. When attacked and there’s no way to escape, a possum “plays dead” and won’t move for any reason. You can’t prod him along no matter what you do. The best thing you can do is leave him alone. When he feels the danger has passed, he wiggles his ears to listen before raising his head to check around to make sure it’s safe to move along. This can take a couple of minutes, up to an hour or so.

If you find an opossum in your yard on a regular basis, that most likely means there’s a den nearby. They will, however, search for food within a two mile radius of their home. They find shelter in underground dens abandoned by other animals, in hollow stumps, crevices in rock piles, holes in trees, woodpiles, buildings, crawlspaces or anyplace that’s dry and provides protection from the weather. Possums generally move den sites every so often to avoid predators, but during cold spells a female with her young will hunker down in one den until the weather warms up. Possums are nocturnal, but they do come out during the day.

Raccoons find shelter in the same places that possums do. If you see a raccoon regularly, there’s likely a den close by. They hunt within a one mile radius. Raccoons are attracted to areas where they can find easy food, and eat pretty much anything: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, bird eggs, pet food and garbage. They also hunt squirrels, birds, rats and mice.

Healthy raccoons and possums won’t normally bother dogs, but if cornered they will defend themselves. If your dog gets into a fight with one, don’t try and break it up to avoid getting bit by either animal. Check for injuries and call your vet immediately for instructions on what to do if you find any. Raccoons pose a rabies threat, so it’s important to make sure your dog’s rabies vaccination is kept up to date. It’s rare to encounter a possum with rabies.

Other wildlife, like coyotes, mountain lions, bears and raptors, follow prey which creates another set of problems for dogs and humans if contact is made. It is important to know how to protect your pet and yourself from predators. Bird feeders, wood piles, fruit sitting outside, seeds, vegetable gardens, open garbage cans and easy access to shelter inside sheds and garages will draw critters, including snakes, into backyards. Oak trees with a crop of acorns still on the tree or the ground are eaten by possums, raccoons and white-tailed deer, as well as other animals and birds. With a food source and shelter, our yards become a haven for wildlife.

Dusk and dawn are the prime times when wild animals hunt, but they hunt during the day, too. The best way to protect your dog from an encounter with wildlife is to limit his time outside at dusk and dawn, and keep a watchful eye on him during the day. Check before letting him outside to make sure there’s not a wild critter inside his enclosure or in the yard, don’t allow him to run free, and don’t leave him outside when you’re away from home.

If we encounter wildlife, our best defense is to look as big as we can by holding our arms, a coat, backpack or blanket above our head. Most dogs, however, instinctively give chase and may catch prey, which can result in a fight between them. It’s best to prevent an encounter in the first place.

Unless you have a dog pen or secured area to let your pet outside in, your dog should be on a leash, especially at night, to prevent unwanted and possibly dangerous encounters with wildlife. Allowing him to chase another animal puts him at risk of injury or death, and you definitely don’t want your dog to be on the wrong end of a skunk! If your dog gets into a fight with wildlife of any kind, call your vet immediately.

Top photo by Tony Alter
Middle photo by R. Walker
Bottom photo by Arkansas ShutterBug

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