It’s that time of year again, and the coyote mating meme is making the rounds on Facebook. But ARE coyote attacks on pets really more common during mating season? In case you are not familiar, the coyote mating meme states: “WARNING! The next 4-6 weeks is mating season for coyotes. Please do NOT let your dogs, or cats out alone. The outcome can be tragic as they can and will attack your pets. (Coyote breeding typically peaks in late February, and early March.) Male coyotes can become more aggressive during this time of year.” In this article, I’m going to review the existing scientific research and determine if it supports that coyotes are more dangerous during the mating season.
If you don't have time to read the full article, check out the infographic. Feel free to download and share to help spread the word.
When is Coyote Mating Season?
The coyote mating meme generally states that coyote mating or breeding season lasts 4-6 weeks and peeks in late February to early March. Coyote researchers generally classify January through April as the mating season, May through August as pup rearing and September through December as dispersal. (Dispersal is when young coyotes leave the pack to find their own territory.) Coyote breeding season may vary by a month or so depending on the geographic location of the coyotes. For example in Massachusetts, mating season is late December to March. Researchers don't mention a "peak" to the breeding season. Most likely it varies each year depending on weather, prey abundance and other factors.
Why Coyote Attacks Might Increase During Mating Season
Coyote attacks on pets might increase during the mating season when coyotes are more territorial. However, male coyotes in particular are not more aggressive. All coyotes in a pack may defend their territory. Territorial attacks would hypothetically be more likely on medium to large dogs that coyotes saw as more of a threat.
Food can be harder to find during the winter. Coyote attacks might also increase if coyotes are traveling into urban/suburban areas looking for easier to obtain food. In this case, we could expect predatory attacks on small dogs and cats.
What Does the Research Show?
Overall, researchers found that seasonality was not a good predictor of coyote attacks. More studies found that coyote attacks increased during the pup rearing season rather than the breeding season. However, no reported results were statistically significant.
Figure 1: Percentage of Coyote Attacks by Season
Breeding Season = Jan - April, Pup Rearing Season = May - Aug, Dispersal = Sept - Dec
AB = Attacks on people or pets in Calgary, Alberta (Lukasik and Alexander 2011), CO = Attacks on people or pets in Denver, Colorado (Poessel et al. 2013), CA = Attacks on dogs in southern California (Frauenthal et al. 2017), AZ = Attacks on cats in Tucson, Arizona (Grubbs and Krausman 2009), US and CAN = Attacks on people in the US and Canada (White and Gehrt 2009)
Researchers Concluded that More Coyote Attacks Occur During ...
In Denver, CO, most coyote conflicts took place in December through February. Coyote attacks on pets were 1.5 times more likely during breeding season. (Poessel et al. 2013)
In Chicago, IL, most attacks on dogs took place in December through February (mating season) with another peak in April (when pups were born). Attacks on larger dogs usually involved two or more coyotes and mostly occurred during mating season. (Gehrt and Riley 2010).
Pup Rearing Season
In Calgary, Alberta, most coyote attacks on pets were during the pup rearing season and the least were during the breeding season. (Lukasik and Alexander 2011)
In southern CA, there were nearly twice as many attacks on dogs during July. Most dogs in this study (81%) were less than 22 lbs. (Frauenthal et al. 2017)
In Tucson, AZ, most attacks on cats were during the pup rearing season. (Grubbs and Krausman 2009)
In the US and Canada, most attacks on humans were during the pup rearing season. (White and Gehrt 2009)
However, no reported results were statistically significant.
Conclusion: Is the Coyote Mating Meme True?
The existing research does not support the coyote mating meme. Overall, seasonality was not a good predictor of coyote attacks. More research studies found that coyote attacks on pets increased during the pup rearing season (May-Aug) rather than the mating season (Jan-April).
Why Coyote Attacks Might Increase During Pup Rearing Season
More research studies found that coyote attacks on pets increased during the pup rearing season rather than the breeding season. Attacks on pets might increase during pup rearing due to the need for more food for the pups and coyotes protecting dens and/or pups. In this case, we would expect to see more predatory attacks on small dogs and cats. Attacks on medium to large dogs would be more likely where the dog approached a coyote den.
Why the Coyote Mating Meme May Have Been Created
Just seeing coyotes may increase the perception that there is increased danger. Several studies reported that sightings of coyotes were highest during mating season. In the winter, coyotes are often more visible, especially in areas with snow. Coyotes also tend to travel more extensively in winter. These increased sightings (and not increased attacks) may be the reason why the mating meme was created.
Figure 2: Percentage of Coyote Sightings by Season
Breeding Season = Jan - April, Pup Rearing Season = May - Aug, Dispersal = Sept - Dec
AB = Attacks on people or pets in Calgary, Alberta (Lukasik and Alexander 2011), CO = Attacks on people or pets in Denver, Colorado (Poessel et al. 2013)
Overall, Coyote Attacks are Relatively Rare
It is important to understand that coyote attacks or aggressive behavior are not common in most areas of the US or Canada. In Denver, only 12.7% of reports were described as conflicts, and in Calgary (Alberta), only 5% of reports involved aggression or attacks. In both studies, the vast majority of reported "incidents" were just sightings: 89% in Calgary, Alberta and 75% in Denver, Colorado.
Figure 3: Coyote Incident Reports in Alberta
Attacks on people or pets in Calgary, Alberta (Lukasik and Alexander 2011)
Figure 4: Coyote Incident Reports in Colorado
Attacks on people or pets in Denver, Colorado (Poessel et al. 2013)
As a species, coyotes pose a relatively low threat to human and pet safety, and conflict is likely limited to specific individuals in the population. Seasonality is less important than other factors (Lukasik and Alexander 2011). Coyotes that are more likely to pose a threat are sick or injured coyotes or those habituated to eating human food (e.g. garbage or pet food).
Keeping Pets Safe from Coyote Attacks
The results of these research studies provide some good tips for keeping pets safe from coyote attacks.
- Don’t let small dogs outside alone even within a fenced yard. In southern California, 81% of attacks were on small dogs less than 22 lbs. Most (76%) of attacks took place while the dogs were off-leash in a backyard with a 6-10 foot fence.
- Don’t let cats or small dogs outside alone at night. Obviously, the safest action is to never let your small dogs or cats outside, unsupervised. But if you do, avoid doing so from dusk until dawn. In California, 70% of attacks on dogs were between 7pm to 7am with the highest incidence between 9pm to 11pm. Similarly, in Arizona, the majority (78%) of attacks on cats were between 10pm and 5am.
- Don’t let dogs run off-leash in the woods, especially during winter or spring. If your dog doesn’t stay close to you when off-leash, there is a greater danger that they could run into a pack of coyotes. During mating season, coyotes MIGHT be more territorial, and during pup rearing season, they MAY defend their den or pups.
- Lastly, don’t leave out food or unsecured garbage, especially at night. Coyotes that regularly eat human food are more likely to have conflicts with humans or pets.
Where to learn more about coyote behavior
Keep in mind that in many areas, coyote attacks on pets are not nearly as common as people tend to assume. In particular, many cases of missing (and never found) cats are blamed on coyotes without any evidence. However, in some areas of North America, coyote attacks are more common. To learn more, check out these articles:
- Regional Risk of Coyote Attacks on Pets
- Understanding Coyote Behavior in Urban/Suburban Areas and Assessing Risk to Cats
Some coyote behaviors are often misinterpreted as dangerous. Coyotes may stare at or follow people or pets, and this is not necessarily aggressive behavior. Another version of the coyote mating meme states that coyotes will lure dogs back to the pack to kill them. This is another myth. Check out this article to learn more.
Literature Cited and Research Study Summaries
- Study conducted from 1997-2012 in southern California
- 154 dog attacks were witnessed
- 15.6% of dogs died or were euthanized due to injuries
- Size of dogs attacked:
- 81% of dogs attacked were less than 22 lbs
- Average weight of dogs in the study was 13 lbs
- Seasonality of attacks:
- Attacks occurred throughout the year
- Nearly 2x as many attacks in July (pup rearing season)
- Time of attacks:
- 70.3% of attacks occurred from 7pm to 7am
- Most common time of attacks 9pm – 11pm
- Location of attacks:
- 76.3% were off leash in the backyard
- Many yards had a 6-10-foot fence, which the coyote jumped over
Gehrt, S and SPD Riley. 2010. “Coyotes (Canis Latrans)” in Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict, and Conservation. Gehrt, Stanley, D., Seth P.D. Riley, and Brian L. Cypher, editors. The John Hopkins University Press.
- Study in Chicago, Illinois, 1990-2004
- Based on 70 newspaper articles of coyote attacks on dogs
- 60% of attacks were on small breed dogs
- Coyote attacks on dogs peaked in December – February (mating season) and again in April (pup rearing season)
- Attacks on larger dogs usually involved two or more coyotes and mostly occurred during mating season, when coyotes are most territorial
- Attacks on small dogs were likely to occur at any time of the year
Grubbs, S and PR Krausman. 2009. Observations of Coyote-Cat Interactions. Journal of Wildlife Management 73(5): 683-685. See full notes here.
- 78% of coyote-cat interactions took place between 10pm - 5am
- 84% of cats were killed between 6pm - 5am
- 69% of attacks and 68% of cats killed were during pup rearing season (May-Aug)
- 8% of attacks and 16% of cats killed were during coyote breeding season (Jan-April)
Lukasik, VM and SM Alexander. 2011. Human-Coyote Interactions in Calgary, Alberta. Human Dimensions in Wildlife 16: 114-127.
- Study conducted from 2005-2008 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- Based on 1,684 incident reports
- 89% of reports were coyote sightings
- 5% of reports were aggression or attacks
- Reported incidents may involve humans and/or pets
- Seasonality of incidents:
- Most sightings were during the breeding season and least during pup rearing
- Most attacks were during the pup rearing season and least during the breeding season
- Most often reported near a river and in central Calgary
Poessel, SA, SW Breck, TL Teel, S Shwiff, KR Crooks, and L Angeloni. 2013. Patterns of Human-Coyote Conflicts in the Denver Metropolitan Area. Journal of Wildlife Management 77(2): 297-305.
- Study conducted from 2003-2010 in Denver, CO
- Based on 4,006 incident reports to the government, mostly from citizens
- 87.3% were coyote observations and 12.7% were conflicts (e.g. aggression or attacks)
- 92.4% of conflicts were attacks on pets
- 2.5% of conflicts were attacks on humans and 46.1% of those also included a pet
- 76.1% were coyote attacks on dogs and 21.9% were on cats
- Locations of attacks on pets:
- 45.8% near a house
- 20.2% in fenced yard
- 5.3% were dogs off leash
- 0.8% were dogs on leash
- Seasonality of coyote conflicts and observations:
- Observations were 2x as common from December – March
- Conflicts were 1.5x more likely during December – February
- Habitat type of conflicts:
- More common in development and open space land
- Less common in natural and agricultural areas
- More common in suburban areas
- Less common in rural and exurban areas
- Hypotheses for increased attacks during winter:
- Coyotes frequent developed areas more often in winter in search of easier to obtain food
- Coyotes are more aggressive and territorial during breeding season
- During short winter days, people are more active, especially walking dogs, at dusk and dawn when coyotes are also more active
White, LA and SD Gehrt. 2009. Coyote Attacks on Humans in the United States and Canada. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 14: 419-432.
- In the US and Canada, most attacks on humans were during the pup rearing season, but the results were not statistically significant.