By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Whether you live in a rural, suburban, or urban setting, your pets run the risk of an encounter with wildlife, and those encounters often lead to injuries. Some wounds are obvious, but others can be quite subtle, though no less dangerous. Here are a few things to look for, and how you should react if your pet comes out on the losing end of a run-in with wildlife.
When they feel threatened, most animals will bite in an attempt to escape with their lives. The damage done by larger animals like coyotes, foxes, or mountain lions may be extensive, but the bites of smaller critters like rats, bats, raccoons, and opossums are also dangerous. Bites can result in puncture wounds that look small on the surface but often result in infections of deep tissues.
If your pet has been bitten by a wild animal, take it to your veterinarian immediately for evaluation and appropriate treatment.
Contact with wild animals may make your pet more susceptible to diseases—especially those associated with flea and tick bites.
Deer, raccoons and opossums, and feral cats can all transmit fleas and ticks to your pet. Tick bites may result in Lyme disease, babesiosis, tick paralysis and other dangerous diseases. In addition to causing itchiness and discomfort for your pet, fleas can transfer typhus or the plague if they bite your dog or cat.
Rabies is another concern if a wild animal bites your pet. Your pet may need a booster rabies vaccine and to be quarantined and closely monitored after such a bite. The exact protocol will depend on state law and your pet’s rabies vaccination status.
Wild animals will also use their claws to defend themselves. Birds of prey like hawks, owls, and eagles will sometimes even try to pick up and carry off smaller pets. A veterinarian should see pets with deep scratches, punctures, or other serious wounds.
Scratches that only affect the outer layer of skin can be treated at home as long as your pet will let you do so safely. Wash the affected area with soap and water and blot it dry with a towel. Apply a non-stinging antiseptic (chlorhexidine and povidone-iodine solution are good options) followed by an antibiotic ointment that does not contain a steroid like hydrocortisone. Repeat this treatment twice daily until the scratches are healed. If you notice your pet’s condition worsening at any time, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Large animals like moose, elk, and deer will often try to kick or stomp on pets that they feel are a threat. The results can range from relatively minor abrasions and bruising to broken bones and catastrophic internal injuries. Sometimes a pet will appear to be okay initially, but his or her condition can decline rapidly due to internal bleeding or other problems that are difficult to identify. It’s always better to be “safe than sorry” in these cases and take your pet to the veterinarian for evaluation.
Pets may bite or even eat wild animals, which can lead to poisonings and infections. For example, most toads in the United States secrete toxins on their skin that cause animals who lick or bite them to drool copiously, shake their heads, and sometimes vomit. A few varieties of toads, like the Rhinella marina (formerly Bufo marinus) in Florida, Texas, and Hawaii, produce such a potent toxin that pets can develop an irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, seizures, and, if not addressed, can even die. Cats who eat wild birds are also at risk for a type of salmonella infection that goes by the name “song bird fever.” If your pet has licked, bitten, or eaten a wild animal and you notice any signs of illness, call your veterinarian.
Porcupines are unique in their ability to protect themselves using their quills. If your pet has only a few quills that are very superficially imbedded, you can try removing them yourself (as long as you can do so safely) by grasping them close to the skin and pulling them straight out. Treat the affected skin as you would a scratch. Multiple, deeply imbedded quills are best removed by a veterinarian while your pet is under sedation. Antibiotics and pain relievers are usually administered in these cases.
When a pet has been sprayed by a skunk, the biggest problem is usually the smell. Many different home remedies can be used to deal with the smell of skunk spray. But in some cases, particularly if your pet has received a big dose of skunk spray right in the face, more serious problems can develop. If your pet has irritated eyes, trouble seeing, vomits, or acts weak, see your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Of course preventing an encounter with wildlife is always better than dealing with its aftermath. Follow these tips to keep your pets safe from wild animals:
- Walk dogs on a leash.
- Keep cats indoors or on a leash when outdoors.
- Don’t leave food (pet or human) out where it can attract wildlife.
- Keep pets current on their vaccinations.