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 eight 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. I am still doing research on this topic, but I wanted to share my findings to date.
Den Use by Coyotes
First of all it is important to understand that coyotes 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 (note to self: need to find research data on whether the male regurgitates or carries prey). 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 (to date)
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.
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.