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Publication #WEC141

Interpreting the Physical evidence of predation on Domestic Livestock1

Martin B. Main2

General Comments

Predation is a natural process whereby one animal, the predator, kills and eats another animal, the prey. Only animals that are strictly plant eaters are not considered predators. However, there are numerous other causes of animal deaths, including parasites, disease, poisonous plants, starvation, exposure to severe weather, ingestion of metal objects that penetrate the digestive tract, bloat, suffocation, lightning, and snake bite. Many predators will scavenge carcasses. Therefore, evidence of predators feeding on the carcasses of livestock does not serve as proof of predation.

In general, livestock killed by predators will exhibit subcutaneous (beneath the skin) bruising and puncture wounds. Livestock that are already dead and are scavenged by coyotes and other potential predators do not exhibit bruising because their heart can no longer pump blood to the wound. Bruising beneath the skin, therefore, is a clear indication that predation has occurred. Other indications of predation include blood on the ground and with larger calves and sheep there may be evidence of a struggle, such as trampled and bloody vegetation. Individual species of predators often follow a general pattern of killing animals that helps to identify the culprit. However, some individuals within a species vary in the method of attack and feeding behavior. These behaviors may overlap between individuals of different species; thus other evidence, such as tracks and feces in the area of the carcass, are often essential to correctly identify the responsible predator.

The largest potential predators of livestock in Florida include the endangered Florida panther and black bear, both of which are legally protected. Neither panthers nor black bears, however, are often associated with livestock loss in Florida. Although western cougars occasionally prey upon livestock, the endangered Florida panther is so rare that livestock loss to this predator is unlikely. Predation on livestock in Florida is most likely to occur from coyotes and domestic dogs, with losses from panthers, bears, eagles, and bobcats less common.

Coyotes have expanded their presence and have increased in numbers throughout Florida since the 1970s and the potential exists for coyotes to cause livestock losses throughout the state. Cattle are primarily at risk during calving periods, but goats and sheep may be vulnerable throughout the year. Coyotes also have been reported to kill pets, particularly cats and small dogs. Loss of livestock to coyotes in Florida is most likely to occur during April-June when coyotes are denning and rearing pups. Studies from western states have determined, however, that killing livestock appears to be a learned behavior not shared by all coyotes. Furthermore, having coyotes present that are not livestock killers may actually reduce risks to livestock because coyote family groups establish territories that they defend against other unrelated coyotes. Studies have demonstrated that when one or both members of a territorial pair are removed, new coyotes move into the area, and coyote densities in the area actually may increase as new individuals attempt to establish claims to available territory. If you are not experiencing loss of livestock to coyotes, removal of one or both of a territorial pair may result in the establishment of coyotes that have learned to prey on livestock, a behavior that also will be taught to offspring. Consequently, removal of non-problem coyotes may be counter-productive. If a problem with livestock loss is identified, control efforts should attempt to target the problem coyotes. This is both a less expensive and more effective strategy than indiscriminate control efforts.

Identifying Predators Responsible for Livestock Loss from Predation Patterns

Coyotes

  • Bite marks and subcutaneous bruising under neck and throat, bloody foam in the trachea

  • Attacks to sides and hindquarters

  • Canine puncture spacing: upper canines = 1 1/8 - 1 3/8 in., lower canines = 1-1¼ in.

  • Often bite and consume nose, particularly on very young animals

  • Feeding: usually begin on flank just behind the ribs, consuming organs and entrails

Domestic Dogs

  • Indiscriminate mutilation of prey, bites on multiple areas of body

  • Note: Some dogs become efficient predators and attack prey in a fashion similar to coyotes, and some coyotes attack prey in an indiscriminate fashion similar to dog attacks

  • Often do not feed on prey, or consume very little

Bobcats

  • Usually kill small lambs by biting on the head or back of neck

  • Often leaps on the back and bites the neck and throat of larger prey

  • Hemorrhaging from claw punctures often can be found below the skin on the neck, back, sides, and shoulders

  • Paired upper and lower canines usually are ¾-1 inch apart

  • Often begin feeding on the viscera after entering behind the ribs

  • Often drag and cover prey

Black Bears

  • Often kill with crushing bites to spine, skull, and dorsal side of neck

  • Claw marks often found on the neck, back, and shoulders of larger prey

  • Often kill more than 1 animal

  • Usually consume the udder and flank, usually remove intestines intact and do not eat

  • Carcass often almost entirely eaten and carcass often “skinned out” leaving the hide intact

  • Prey often dragged to cover, prey sometimes covered with grass and dirt

Panther/Cougar

∙ Usually bite to the back of the neck and skull causing massive hemorrhaging

  • Large canine tooth punctures, upper canines 1¾-2 in. apart, lower canines 1-1¾ in. apart

  • Large claw marks on head, neck, shoulder, flank

  • Usually eviscerates the carcass, removes entrails and move aside

  • Consume lungs, heart, liver, and larger leg muscles

  • May drag and cover prey

Eagles

  • Talon punctures in head and body

  • Hallux (opposing talon) punctures are 4 - 6 inches from the middle toe wound

  • Internal hemorrhage from talons

  • Wool scattered (tufts of hair, wool) and carcass often “skinned out”

  • Consumes entrails, organs, sometimes opens skull and eats brain tissue

  • Ribs removed near the spine on young animals

  • Presence of white-streak feces

Other, non-predator causes of mortality

  • Mostly livestock die from other causes (poison plants)

  • Look for foaming at nostrils & mouth (poison)

  • Stillborn Animals: Hooves covered with membrane (this membrane quickly wears off with activity); Lungs red and not inflated

Controlling Coyotes on Private Land

Coyotes are territorial and will defend their hunting areas from other coyotes. Killing livestock is not a universal pattern among coyotes. If you are not experiencing loss of livestock to coyotes, removal of one or both of a territorial pair may result in the establishment of coyotes that have learned to prey on livestock. Consequently, removal of non-problem coyotes may be counter-productive.

If coyote control is warranted, the following information needs to be considered. Coyotes have no status as a game animal in Florida and can be shot during daylight hours, captured in live traps, or taken with body snares throughout the year. Permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are required to shoot coyotes at night under spotlight. Permits also are required to use steel leg-hold traps or poison and may be obtained only by authorization of the Executive Director, as described under Rule 39-12.009, Provision 3: Killing Destructive Birds and Mammals. Applications for permits to control coyotes may be obtained by contacting your Regional FWC Law Enforcement Department, which can be obtained from the FWC website: http://www.state.fl.us/fwc/.

Acknowledgements

Material used in this handout were synthesized from various sources, including a workshop on identifying livestock and big game depredation held at the 1997 meeting of The Wildlife Society and from a website prepared by Texas A&M University (http://texnat.tamu.edu/ranchref/predator). Information on controlling coyotes was provided by Nick Wiley, Chief, Bureau of Wildlife Management, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Additional Information

Additional information on coyotes in Florida, including many internet links to information on coyotes elsewhere in the United States can be found on the South Florida Coyote Study internet site: http://www.imok.ufl.edu/wild/coyote/index.htm.

Footnotes

1.

This document is WEC141, one of a series of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date September 2000. Revised June 2008. Reviewed September 2011. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Martin B. Main, Assistant Professor, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, Immokalee. Insitute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.