Understanding Coyote Behavior in Urban/Suburban Areas and Assessing Risk to Cats

Coyote crossing river in Yellowstone

So many of the people who contacted me this summer were convinced that their lost cat had been killed by coyotes.  This is a pervasive belief that unfortunately causes many people to lose hope and stop searching for their lost cat after a short period of time.  Unless you are able to find his/her remains, you may never know whether your lost cat was killed by coyotes.  However, understanding some basic behavior of coyotes in urban/suburban areas may help you understand the relative risk of your cat being killed by coyotes.  In many cases, you will find that the probability of this happening is much less likely than you may have initially feared.  For more perspective on this issue, you may also want to read my article “Coyotes Don’t Eat Cats Very Often.”

Coyote packs generally consist of a breeding pair and 1-2 associates (young of previous years) who stay to help raise the current pups.  Although many coyotes live in packs, they frequently travel singly or in pairs.  Coyotes in urban/suburban areas generally have smaller home ranges than their rural counterparts.  Way et al. (2002) found that  the average home range for a breeding adult coyote in Massachusetts was approximately 30 km2 (11.5 square miles).  This is equivalent to 7,400 acres or a circular area with a 3.8 mile diameter.  In comparison, Gehrt et al. (2009) found that coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area had an average home range of only 4.95 km2 (1.9 square miles).

Denning & Pup Rearing

The coyote breeding season generally runs from January – February and pups are born between mid-March and mid-April.  Way et al. (2001) found that den sites in eastern Massachusetts were located within 300 m (984 ft) of water and were devoid of prey remains and adult scat.  In late-May to mid-June the pups are moved from the den to a series of rendezvous sites.  These are concealed resting sites where the pups are left while the adults are out hunting.  Way et al. (2001) found that rendezvous sites were located 0.2-8.0 km (0.1-5 miles) from the nearest house and were within 4 km (2.5 miles) of water.  Pups are self-sufficient by September and may either disperse or remain with their parents for up to several years. 

In a previous article, Observations of Coyote Predation on Cats, I noted that researchers in Arizona (Grubbs and Krausman 2009) found that coyotes killed the largest number of cats (68%) during the pup rearing season (May-August).  Similarly, a study in California found that predatory attacks on children were most common in the spring/summer (Timm and Baker 2004).   This suggests that coyotes are most likely to attack pets and young children when they are under the increased food demands of gestating and raising pups.  However, some pet detectives that I work with in the eastern US have observed that they find more coyote killed cats during the winter months. 

Activity Patterns & Travel (Way et al. 2004)

Coyotes in suburban environments were mostly active during dawn, dusk and especially at night.  In contrast, studies of coyotes in natural areas found that they were more active during the day.  However, breeding females may be active at all hours during April – June when they are nursing pups.

Coyotes travel about 20-26 km (12-16 miles) per day/night.  In urban/suburban areas, coyotes frequently travel along power lines, dirt roads, and railroad tracks.  They also hunt and travel in altered areas such as golf courses, cranberry bogs, and dumps.  Neighborhoods that bordered natural areas  or altered areas were used on an especially frequent basis.  Coyotes always slept in wooded/natural areas or remote altered areas during the day, but they were often within 50 m (164 ft) of a house.

Assessing Potential Risk to Missing Cats

If you answer yes to most of these questions, then there is a higher risk that your cat may have been killed by a coyote:

  1. Is your cat an outdoor-access cat that didn’t return home?
  2. Did your cat go missing at dawn, dusk or during the night?
  3. Did your cat go missing in May through August?
  4. Have many other outdoor-access cats also gone missing within your town?  (Have you seen lots of other lost cat posters up lately?)
  5. Is your cat a kitten, sick, elderly or unusually small (less than 5 lbs)?
  6. If you live in an urban/suburban area, is your neighborhood next to a park, conservation area, golf course, cemetery or dump?
  7. During your search did you find the remains of any deceased cats?  (High risk.)  Have you found the remains of any cats in your area in the last several months? (Moderate risk.)
  8. Have you observed coyotes chasing cats in your neighborhood in the past few months? (High risk.)
  9. Are coyotes frequently seen during the day in your neighborhood? (Moderate risk.)
  10. Have there been reliable reports of coyotes attacking or killing dogs or cats in your town?  These reports are only really reliable if someone saw the pet get attacked or found the remains afterward.  In some cases there may be as many as 30-40 reported attacks per month (Baker and Timm 1998). (Highest risk.)

Even if you answer yes to all these questions, it does not necessarily mean that your cat was killed by a coyote.  If there are coyote killing cats in your area, there is also an increased risk that your cat might get injured and be hiding or might get chased out of his home range and not know how to find his way home.  Even in the Arizona study, where the coyote pack was frequently seen hunting cats, many cats interacted with coyotes, but were not killed (Grubbs and Krausman 2009).  Out of 36 observed coyote-cat interactions, cats were killed 53% of the time, chased 28% of the time, and stood their ground 17% of the time.

To learn more about coyote behavior and how to coexist in an urban/suburban environment, I also recommend these resources.

  • Eastern Coyote Research: most of the coyote biology in this article is summarized from the research of Jonathan Way who has been studying coyotes in Massachusetts for over 10 years.
  • Project Coyote: includes a downloadable book, Coyotes in Our Midst, on understanding and coexisting with coyotes.
  • The Cooke County, Illinois, Coyote Project: research on coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area.
  • Myths & Truths About Coyotes: a very comprehensive yet easy-to-read book including almost everything you ever wanted to know about coyotes.  Personally, I think the author is overly grim in her assessment of coyote risk to cats, but in general it is a rather unbiased account of coyote behavior.

Literature Researched

Baker, Rex O. and Robert M. Timm.  1998.  Management of Conflicts Between Urban Coyotes and Humans in Southern CaliforniaProceedings of the 18th Vertebrate Pest Conference: 299-312.

Gehrt, Stanley D., Chris Anchor, and Lynsey A. White.  2009.  Home Range and Landscape Use of Coyotes in a Metropolitan Landscape: Conflict or Coexistence?  Journal of Mammalogy 90(5): 1045-1057.

Grubbs, Shannon E. and Paul R. Krausman.  2009.  Observations of Coyote – Cat Interactions.  Journal of Wildlife Management 73(5): 683-685. 

Timm, Robert M., Rex O. Baker, Joe R. Bennett, and Craig C. Coolahan.  2004.  Coyote Attacks: an Increasing Suburban ProblemTransactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 69, 67-88.

Way, Jonathan G. and Marc Bekoff.  2007.  Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts.  Dog Ear Publishing, LLC.

Way, Jonathan G., Issac M. Ortega, and Eric G. Strauss.  2004.  Movement and Activity Patterns of Eastern Coyotes in a Coastal, Suburban  Environment.  Northeastern Naturalist 11(3): 237-254.

Way, Jonathan G., et al.  2002.  Eastern Coyote Home Range, Territoriality, and Sociality on Urbanized Cape Cod.  Northeast Wildlife 57: 1-18.

Way, Jonathan G., Peter J. Auger, Issac M. Ortega, and Eric G. Strauss.  2001.  Eastern Coyote Denning Behavior in an Anthropogenic Environment.  Northeast Wildlife 56: 18-30.

25 thoughts on “Understanding Coyote Behavior in Urban/Suburban Areas and Assessing Risk to Cats”

  1. Thank you for your article. I agree that people are very quick to assume that their lost cat has been eaten by a predator, although in New Hampshire, fishers get most of the blame, despite a study done by NH Fish and Game Dept. that showed that fishers rarely, if ever, eat cats.

    I was curious about one thing in your article, and maybe I will learn the answer when I read your other articles, but what did you mean when you wrote that a certain percentage of cats, when faced with a coyote, stand their ground? Thanks.

  2. I live in the Atlanta area, and am SO TIRED of people hiring trappers to kill their neighborhood coyotes because their cats have gone missing. Why can’t we just implement the same animal control laws on cats that we do on dogs, and make it illegal to allow your cat to roam free outside? Do that, and no more “missing” cats!

    (I’m just venting – thanks!)

    1. pardon me, but the cats are the innocent parties here, so to speak. In our neighborhood, they are living quietly in their own yards, when they are ambushed and torn to pieces. Why are you blaming the cats? Our pets (hopefully) are on par with family members. why is it their fault when something invades their territory and murders them ? Your letter doesn’t seem helpful since it feels very anti-cat.

      1. My cat was gruesomely torn apart in his own yard which he never left. He was indoors most of the time but would bolt outside at any chance he got. I chased after him but he wasnt feeling it. I found his remains in the morning in my yard. I am sooo heartbroken and want my best friend back. I have so much guilt to let him be outside. How will I ever feel normal again? I wish they got me instead of him because I can’t handle this

        1. So sorry for your loss. My good friend’s cat has been missing 7 days now and she is ready to give up. It is so sad not to know what happened.
          All my best to you…

          1. Thank you for the research. It was most informative.

            Unfortunately, we witnessed the coyote attack and my husband beat the coyote with his fists until he/she released our 16 pound cat. It, of course, was too late then. Coyotes quick kill if they can.
            If you retired and bought a little forest for your cats to play in like we did, I suggest a larger home with less forest and a nice staircase they can romp up and down for exercise…. it’s safer.

  3. i dont agree. i did not know anything about coyotes until recently. i live in vancouver wa.,in the middle of the city, where you would never think of seeing one until this last summer. one of my cats went missing and i searched for weeks but didnt find him. then one day my neighbor found a jaw bone and some of my cats fur under his bushes. still i didnt believe it was a coyote. two weeks later, another neighbor came over to tell me they saw a coyote going down the street with one of my other cats in its mouth. i was across the street at the park a few days later and on the ground was a back leg from a black cat. this man went around putting up flyers for his missing black cat, i told him whats been going on and he did not believe me. so anyway i was told they hunt from dark to dawn so my last cat i would only let out durring the day.2 weeks ago he dissapeard durring the day, he never went away from the house. so im left wondering did he get stolen or eaten? i cant find him anywhere. heart broken again.my husband works in portland or., he called me one morning to tell me that as he was exiting the freeway over there a coyote went across the off ramp right in front of him with a cat in its mouth. i am told cats are one of their favorite foods. i have been here over 20 years and this year is the first we have had coyotes. i know its from development but this has been a nightmare. will it ever stop?

    1. Hi Tammy,

      I, too, live here in Vancouver in the Minnehaha area just off of 63rd near St. Johns and St. James. They are doing all of that construction down there at the SR-500/St. John’s intersection, so it doesn’t surprise me that in the past couple of days the neighbors here have been seeing coyotes the past couple of days. My 9-year-old daughter saw one just across the street from the bus stop (here on 58th Street). Then yesterday a neighbor said she saw one here. And another neighbor who was listening to us talk said there are two of them. So, sudden sightings of coyotes right here on our street. And what scares me is that yesterday morning I woke up to find that one of my dogs has disappeared. I have a pet door, so my two cats and two dogs come and go at will. My fenced in back yard is mostly solid, but feeble in some spots with nothing more than chicken wire….the side of my back yard that is connected to where the coyotes are being seen. The dogs both went to bed with me the night prior, but when I woke up yesterday morning, my little Tellie (30 pounds but short to the ground with a tiny head…over weight) was no where to be seen. I can see where the chicken wire was pushed down a bit, so she must have gone out that way, but in the middle of the night or early morning when we are all sleeping? She only sneaks out of the yard if she’s either extremely scared, or if it’s bath time. I can’t help but wonder if she saw something in the backyard while going potty (again…pet door), and then took off over the fence. Strange how she didn’t just run back into the house unless something that scared her was already in the backyard with her. We periodically hear something crawl over the chicken wire fence that is on the side of the house when we are sleeping. My bed is right next to that wall, but we’ve always just shrugged it of as raccoons, cats, or possums. Breaks my heart right in two to think of my baby being attacked by a coyote. She’s 30 pounds, but she’s fat, with a tiny frame, and short to the ground. Pretty coincidental that suddenly we see coyotes here, and suddenly my Tellie has disappeared. I am still wondering what happened to my orange tabby, Tigger, that disappeared two years ago never to be seen again. I can’t believe I’m not a vegetarian, because when I think of the suffering that is involved in “the circle of life”, it makes me cry. Anyway, I guess I just needed to vent. I am so heart-broken. I am very sorry to hear about your cats. I can’t help but wonder what part of Vancouver that you live in.

      1. i’m just glad that other people understand the pain im in. several cats have been killed by coyotes here, and it’s heartbreaking. sometimes, you tell people what you’ve been through and you hear horrible stuff like “well, it was only a cat.” this makes the pain all the worse since i now feel leary of people because i’ve met so many who have this heartless approach. why does it seem like i’m the only person alive who is caring and kind ? i never meet other people who are capable of crying over their cats death (or murder, as it really feels). i’m so confused. i end up feeling like the only person out here who still has a heart. has the world always been so nasty and cold , or am i just noticing it now? i’m sad and disgusted.

        1. Hi Rena,
          I know exactly how you feel. My 13 year old cat has been missing since September 2013. She never wandered more than a couple of houses away from home in our neighborhood. I have gone door to door, put up posters, and put flyers in mailboxes within a 3-4 mile radius and still haven’t found my cat. I have even spoken with animal communicators about her. Until she went missing I had no idea that coyotes were around and would eat cats. I live in the Raleigh Durham area of NC. After she went missing several of my neighbors told me about the coyotes and one neighbor told me not to waste my time looking for her. I hate to think about her or any cats suffering because of a coyote. I think we should all start hunting coyotes. SAVE THE CATS…..KILL THE COYOTES

          1. same situation here- no idea that they were in the area (Knoxville TN) until i started networking on behalf on my missing cat… some days, depending on the source- this was all I heard &was beyond grief stricken!!- but MOST days I have not heard of this as a threat, and MOST ppl (if I am the one bringing it up) will dispute this as a likely factor. This article helps close off that pathway of thinking- – just as helpful has been lots of info on the nature of the lost/hiding cat…..happens with the most stable/clingy of cats, they disappear and hide despite your least expectation. Still looking for mine!

          2. Im with you Rhonda. My cat disappeared a year ago. I still look. We like in an area surrounded by forest and lake, and open lands. They love it – and our cats. A lady told me her outdoor cat was seen playing with a coyote. I said, thats not playing. Maybe the cat thinks do. But not the coyote. Or its buddies waiting on the edges. They need to be forced off our territory. Well, we did take it, so lets defend it – and out cats. Rubber bullets, smoke bombs, stink bombs,tear gas, bug spray, bb/pellet guns, paint ball guns – all can hurt and deter enough to keep them off OUR grounds.

        2. Rena my cat has died and people have said the worst things to me which makes it that much harder. They do not know my story or what I had to see. He was better than a person because he was there when no one else was. I totally understand what you’re saying. I wish he didn’t have to die this way. I wish I could have helped him. I had the garage door cracked for him at all times but he wasn’t able to make it there :(((

        3. When I had to have one of my cats euthanized because of cancer, I afterwards poured out my heart to my pastor at church. Besides being very compassionate understanding and loving he told me I needed to understand two things. Number one, he said I needed to understand that I lost the equivalent of a child. Number two, he said I had to understand and realize that there will be others that do not understand number one and that they will say some very inappropriate things and that I needed to be prepared ahead of time for that. I hope my pastors advice will be of help and comfort to you. You and your pet(s) are in my prayers. David

  4. Pretty sure my sweet Daisy got grabbed off the back porch . I didn’t know she was out ( it was the first warm day here in Toledo ).I think a coyote chased her around to the front of the house.
    I had my window open and heard a cat scream maybe an animal noise as well ( I was waking up barely ) it was so quick .
    Nothing left of her …. No fur , no signs of anything . My other cat has sniffed around and doesn’t want to go off the patio .
    A neighbor had her two dogs on the back porch while she had morning coffee inside , two coyote jumped her fence attacked her smaller dog and killed it before she could pull her sliding door open at 9:00 in the morning ! They are becoming less afraid of people , bolder and don’t belong in the suburbs .

  5. I live in a wooded area in northern AZ. I and neighbors have seen coyotes in the day time. Today my
    dog has encountered one coyote in our yard twice -the last one ended in a scuffle between both animals.

    I think perhaps the coyote is denning in our yard under manzanita bushes, Is there any spray that will
    discourage them from our yard?

  6. I feel all your pain.I too have lost cats over the years from coyote. I now won’t let any of my cats outside at all. And I do a head count every night.

  7. My condolences to all who have lost a beloved pet. I live in So. Cal and am visited regularly by our local Coyote group. I have seen them morning, noon and night, even saw one brave bugger at the bank rummaging around at 2pm! While I do believe wholeheartedly that they WILL take a cat, a bigger concern for us is the Owls at night! I do think they probly get more cats then the Coyote. In fact, our neighbor recently took a large Mexican Palm tree down only to find 27 collars off small animals both dogs and cats I imagine. Also, many stories of small dogs taken, while on a leash by hawk or some other type of large bird. Be very cautious out there!

  8. What does it sound like when coyotes attack? Are the howling, yellping? My cat has been missing for three days and i just heard coyotes but no Cat scream?

    1. Often coyotes will make little or no sound when they attack. They rarely howl after making a kill unless it is a large animal like a deer and they want to attract other coyotes in the pack. You are more likely to hear the cat being attacked (screeching or screaming), but this is not always the case. Coyotes attack and attempt to kill very quickly so you may not hear anything.

    2. My cat, Philipe, was killed by a coyote on July 2, 2018 at 4:30 am. My neighbor was jogging and saw it, but
      claimed that it was too late to do anything. He was the nicest cat. I miss him terribly! He probably thought
      it was just a dog. He probably did not even try to fight. Most cats enjoy being outdoors, so when we
      keep them inside all the time it must be like prison to them. They adapt to the inside life but their innate
      nature requires some time outside. I always had cats inside and outside but from now on I will let them
      out only daytime and when I am present.

  9. We are on the west coast California.
    We live in condos. There is a natural pond a mile away. We read in our neighbor to neibor that a coyote attached, kill and ran off with a Chihuahua on leash! Darn scary since we have 2 Chihuahuas.
    We also have small grass areas around our units. I’m wondering if coyotes would create dens in them, hang around and attach our dogs. We don’t have them on leash in these mini park spots.

    1. It’s unlikely that they would create actual dens if there’s a lot of human activity and they only use dens during the pup rearing season. However, in residential areas, coyotes will often have rest spots as close as 50 feet from human residences. If you want a more specific answer, I’d have to check on a satellite map. If you want, you could email me your complex address to info (at) lostpetresearch.com. I’d also suggest checking out this article to see if you live in a high risk area: https://lostpetresearch.com/2014/01/regional-risk-of-coyote-attacks-on-pets/.

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