Do Coyotes Carry Cats Back to their Den?

Coyote pup exiting a well concealed den.
Coyote pup exiting a well concealed den.

When a cat or small dog goes missing, pet owners/guardians are often concerned that s/he could have fallen prey to a coyote or other predator.  As a pet detective for over ten years, I have often been asked the question: “Do coyotes carry cats back to their dens to eat them?”  Of more concern, I’ve occasionally heard from people that a tracking dog team led them to a presumed predator den and they were told that the resident coyote (or fox or fisher) had killed their cat and taken it into the den.  There is unfortunately a lot of misunderstanding and myth when it comes to coyote behavior.

Den Use by Coyotes

Coyotes actually only use dens when they are raising their pups and stop using them when the pups are 8-10 weeks old.  “After that, even young pups generally sleep in the woods – even on nasty, rainy days” (Way 2012).  The coyote breeding season runs from mid-January to early February (in Massachusetts), and the pups are born 60-66 days later in mid-March to early April (Way 2012).  Several weeks before the pups are born, the coyote pair will excavate multiple possible den sites.  If a den site is disturbed, the coyotes will move the pups to one of these other dens, and they will often move the pups every few weeks presumably to avoid parasites like fleas infesting the den (Parker 1995: 63-66).

While the pups are nursing, the female will make short excursions from the den for food and the male may also provide her with some food.  Once the pups are 8-10 weeks old, the coyotes will move the pups to a rendezvous site.  This is usually in an open area and near water.

Do Coyotes Bring Prey Back to their Dens?

Jonathan Way operates Eastern Coyote Research and has been studying coyotes in Massachusetts for more than ten years.  There is a good article on his website on the “Eastern coyote/coywolf life cycle in southeastern Massachusetts,” which answers many commonly asked questions about coyote behavior.  This is what he had to say about whether adult coyotes bring prey back to their dens.

“I have heard reports of dens surrounded by cat collars, cat remains, or deer fawns. However, all dens I have examined (over 20) have been devoid of prey. I believe this is an old wives tale to perpetuate the myth that coyotes/coywolves wipe out their prey supply, or at the least are having an undesirable affect on our local wildlife (or pets). Adults regularly clean dens by doing things like eating pup feces and regurgitate most food to the pups during this time” (Way 2012).

For more information on coyote denning behavior, I would recommend reading Way’s (2001) study on “Eastern coyote denning behavior in an anthropogenic environment.”  Other research presented in Eastern Coyote: The Story of Its Success (Parker 1995) found similar cases of clean coyote dens:

  • South Dakota – “There are seldom excessive tracks or any large accumulation of food remains around a den as would be expected if the den were used [for] several weeks” (Gier 1957).
  • Maine – “Active dens were devoid of prey remains and adult scats, similar to observations [of dens] in Missouri” (Harrison and Gilbert 1985; Hallett 1977).
  • Wisconsin – “Unlike foxes, coyotes remove bones, scats, and other debris from the den site” (Fruth 1986).

Conclusions

A coyote is most likely to carry its prey a minimum distance from the kill site before consuming.  Unless the location is perceived as unsafe by the coyote, carrying prey, especially a 10 lb cat, is a waste of energy.  If they need to bring prey to their mate or pups, they will usually consume the edible parts, carry the food in their stomach, and then regurgitate it at the den or rendezvous site.  If they don’t need to share their food, uneaten prey remains are more likely to be cached (buried) for later consumption.  From the research that I’ve read and my personal experience doing coyote research in Yellowstone, it is highly unlikely that a coyote would carry a cat or other large prey item into the den to consume.  On one occasion, I observed a coyote in Yellowstone carrying the legs of a pronghorn fawn, back to the den area.  When we later surveyed the coyote den sites in the park, I found some scat, bones and pieces of hide near the dens.  However, at least in areas where coyotes are hunted, they seem to keep the den area cleaned of prey remains.

In contrast to coyotes, I found in preliminary research on bobcats, foxes and fishers that these species are more likely to bring prey back to their den.  Bobcats and fishers may even bring the prey into their den to consume.

Literature Cited

Fruth, K.  1986.  The coyote (Canis latrans).  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Wildlife Management PUBL-WM-148. 1.

Gier, H.T.  1957.  Coyotes in Kansas.  Kansas Agricultural Experimental Station Bulletin 393: 254.

Hallett, D.L. 1977.  Post-natal mortality, movements, and den sites of Missouri Coyotes.  M.Sc. thesis University of Missouri, Columbia.

Harrison, D.J. and J.R. Gilbert.  1985.  Denning ecology and movements of coyotes in Maine during pup rearing.”  Journal of Mammalogy 66: 714.

Parker, Gary.  1995.  Eastern Coyote: The Story of Its Success.  Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Publishing Limited.

Way, J.G. 2012. Eastern coyote/coywolf life cycle in southeastern Massachusetts and some commonly asked questions. Eastern Coyote Research Publications 4: 1-5. URL: http://www.easterncoyoteresearch.com/downloads/EasternCoyoteLifeCycle.pdf

Way, J. G, P. J. Auger, I. M. Ortega, and E. G. Strauss. 2001. Eastern coyote denning behavior in an anthropogenic environment. Northeast Wildlife 56: 18-30.

13 thoughts on “Do Coyotes Carry Cats Back to their Den?”

  1. Thank you for the information. This morning I found the remains of one of our feral cats in our yard, just his head, shoulders and front legs. I assume it was a coyote that got him but some have suggested it may have been a raccoon. What do you think?
    We have about 10 ferals that roam the block but spend a lot of time in our yard. We feed them and have converted a shed as shelter for them. Our yard is fenced except for the entrance off our driveway. I’m thinking about stretching chicken wire across that opening to about 6 feet high, as a quick security measure until we can install a permanent solution. Do you think a coyote would pull that down or go over or under it? thanks

  2. We have a feral cat community of 22 cats and have coyotes come searching for food in our area. We often find the remains of cat body parts like the legs-head and tail. Our community has Courtesy Patrol at night and uses a signal horn to scare the coyotes out of our community. There is a golf course near are community that has a wash running through it that attracts the coyotes because they have fish-geese-rabbits located around it. What we have noticed is that the coyotes come in sometimes in numbers of 2 or 3 and split up and work both sides of our community. The feral cats have a safe spot with a ten foot high fence and a very small area only they can fit in to enter that area. Most of the animals missing are from homeowners leaving their pets out. Our footage shows coyotes going to where they hear barking dogs first and then they hunt- we have had them take animals out of here and also leave partial remains after slitting them open. Communities need to talk to their people about keeping their pets inside at night and do not leave food outside for your pet/pets. The hour they seem to come into ours is from 12 am to 4:30 am and in doing so they travel a very busy street.

  3. I found this article trying to confirm what I thought were coyotes dragging carcasses back to their den. I shot and wounded a deer just before dark on Christmas eve (so obviously a rural area), and spent that night and most of Christmas morning tracking it. I found some of the remains tangled in a barbwire fence on the neighbor’s property (with permission) with pieces torn apart here and there scattered over 100 to 150 yards or so leading back to a 10,000 square foot wooded area with hundreds if not thousands of bones strewn about. It was like something out of horror movie for animals. Mostly cow and deer bones as far as I could tell. The property is used for cattle but somewhat neglected so there aren’t humans or dogs on it very often and it has a very healthy coyote population that we see frequently. The area were I found the bones is one that no one would have a reason to check regularly so it could easily not have human traffic for years at a time. Picking off a calf is not unheard of but there were a lot of large bones easily visible by moonlight. The bones were picked clean so they had clearly been accumulating over years. I can’t think of any other animal in the area that would be dragging prey back to one specific area in this manner. If a mountain lion or tracks or even a bobcat that looked like a mountain lion in the dark was thought to be prowling around, folks in those parts (border of Lee County and Bastrop County in Texas) would have been talking about it. A bobcat isn’t going drag a cow femur or a deer leg that far and there are plenty of rabbits, gophers and mice to keep them fed. There aren’t wild dog packs that are seen in other areas of Texas or other feral predators. just feral hogs, donkeys, and, seriously, a few llamas. The only explanation in my mind is coyotes. I should also note that I believe the Bastrop County still has a $15 bounty on coyotes so they are hunted in the area, maybe just not on that property of a couple hundred acres.

  4. We found our 10 lb+ terrier dead in our backyard yesterday afternoon at around 5pm. We live in a residential area and we have 6 feet high walls around our property. Half of her body was found. Head, 2 front legs, shoulders and her thorax exposed…the rest was missing. The weird part is that no blood was found on the scene. We were shocked of what we saw and I dont know who else to blame it on else than coyotes. I cant believe they do this in residential areas

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your dog. It certainly sounds like a coyote could be responsible. They are being found more frequently in residential areas and can easily scale a six foot fence. Lack of visible blood is common at coyote kill sites of smaller animals.

  5. I live here in the city La puente California, and I have experiencing alot of cayotes this past month in a half. They’ve already left 6 diferrent pets 4 cats 2 lil dogs dead in our neighbors front yard both neighbors yard the drive way is in the middle. We use to have 7 cats now we have 5 so we can just imagined what happened to them. Im so scared bc they jumo in my bk yard. They seem not to be afraid of us. They keep coming bk. I hear them as early as 11:30pm howling. I just heard them now at 3:40am. I heard them kill a dog a week ago it was very very Sad. Im so scared myself for my kids especially. I dont even know what to do but move bc of them dam Cayotes.

    1. Just the past couple weeks coyote got six of my barn Kitty’s, one goose and two ducks, I have five card left and I crate them before it gets dark. Just the other night they stole one of my neighbours goats. I have three horses I’m concerned for so I’m looking to buy a donkey and end this nightmare. Meanwhile I have been Dowsing fence lines and entry areas with ammonia and hanging soaked sponges with ammonia all over, I also poured white viniger all over fencing area because I heard they HATE these smells, I’ll repeat this process every two days. I went and bought very bright LED motion lights and put everywhere I could along with leaving a loud radio on all night long out at the pole barn. I’m praying this works to deter them away. I have three Cane Corso Mastiffs that are indoor, this breed was built for hunting big game and was also used in Roman wars, very powerful, but…if it’s more then one coyote at a time I don’t know if it will even matter ?

  6. This article is apparently trying to debunk the idea that coyotes carry cats they’ve killed back to their den, and, by implication, if someone with tracking dog tells you otherwise you’re being scammed. Maybe so. But the article also says coyotes will regurgitate their prey at their den for their pups. Couldn’t tracking dogs be sensing that? So I don’t see that the article resolves anything though the information on coyote behavior was interesting and I do appreciate it.

    1. Thanks for your input. I’m wondering if I should update this article with some suggestions on what to do if someone suspects or is told that their cat was taken into a coyote den. I would want the person to be skeptical, but not necessarily conclude that they are being scammed. While it is unlikely a coyote would take a cat into a hole in the ground, other predators or scavengers such as a fisher or raccoon might do so.

      However, I don’t think it’s likely that a tracking dog would be able to track a lost cat to a den if the coyote regurgitated the remains there. In this case the coyote would have consumed the cat elsewhere and then carried the meat in their stomach. Therefore, there wouldn’t be a scent trail for the tracking dog to follow to the den. Instead scent trail would lead to the kill or consumption site, which would likely include some remains if only fur and blood.

  7. Familiar with coyotes as a kid growing up on farmland in Illinois.
    Moved ro California & eventually in a development that was & still surrounded by cattle pasture. Coyotes were a common sound .
    Many people didn’t listen about putting their animals up at night, bc a pack of coyotes were familiar sight/sound
    They killed quite a few cats~pets~found mutilated on the golf course, found by the early golfers….
    Some people in nearby area, have pics of coyotes carrying a cat back the way they came. Another had her chihuahua grabbed by a coyote while her adult son was walking it. He got it away from the coyote & a $600 some dollar surgery followed…
    They hunt in packs. Have heard them lure a dog to them sounding like an injured pup..
    The feral cats seemed smart enough to avoid run ins with them & often yelling at the coyotes was enough to send the entire pack running….
    Put your animals & any food, safely inside at night …

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