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?  (At least 3 cats per month within 4 miles of your home.)
  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?
  9. Are coyotes frequently seen during the day in your neighborhood?
  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).

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.

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