Injuries and Ailments: A Coyote’s Life is Hard and Short

12 years old is old for a coyote in the city

Life is not easy for a coyote. Among their strifes with each other, humans, and dogs, there are injuries and ailments, and environmental hazards, a few of which I’ll address here.

Lifespan in captivity for a coyote is about 14 to 16 years — it’s about the equivalent of what it is for a dog of that size. But in the wild-wild, I’ve been told, the average lifespan is only 3-5 years — much of that is caused by human predation. Here in the city I’ve known a number of coyotes who reached the age of 12 and almost 12, but, in fact, few actually reach that milestone.

Cars are their biggest killers

Of course cars kill and might be considered their chief “predator” in a city: twenty-four dead coyotes were picked up in 2021 in San Francisco from roadways. There were probably more coyotes hit by cars that were able to scramble under some bushes where they perished but were not counted. And then there were those who survived their car hits. The most notable I knew of happened many years ago: a single mother (her mate had been killed by rat poison) with two very young pups. This coyote managed to drag herself along for months, feeding herself and her youngsters all by herself. After two full months she was again using that leg, gingerly, but she was using it. Over time she did recover: but you can imagine how difficult life was for her during her healing time.

Rat poison has kills

Another coyote killer in the City is rat poison: I’ve picked up several dead coyotes showing no body traumas which could indicate poisoning was involved. Only one was necropsied, but that animal’s body was found to be riddled with four different kinds of rat poison. Rat poison works by causing internal bleeding, so before it kills, it weakens the animal tremendously — and probably hurts unbearably. Some survive milder doses, but their reactions are slowed and subjecting them to further injury. Those with heavy doses die pretty horrible deaths.

Dogs chasing him broke his ankle

Leg injuries are pretty common in coyotes: I regularly see them limping. Although dogs aren’t the cause of all their limping, I have seen plenty of coyotes end up limping after having been chased by a dog. In the uneven terrain, and woodsie areas which they run into in order to escape a dog, the sticks and holes are little booby traps for their fine limbs, and they get injured.

I’ve seen an actual broken ankle — so diagnosed by a wildlife vet from a video I sent her — caused by running from a dog. That ankle eventually, over many months, healed, but it came back to haunt him three years later, when I again saw him limping on the same back leg: he had just lost his mate who had been hit by a car and now he needed to defend his territory and pups from takeover, but he could not do so without his mate. The weakened and then re-injured ankle may have resulted from him trying to defend his turf. He was driven out and I have not seen him for a year.

Dogs chase coyotes constantly in San Francisco
This fella’s left front arm was broken and healed crooked.

I saw a broken forearm (either the radius or the ulna) — I have no idea how it came about. That was an 18 month old during his dispersal time. He returned to one of the territories he had passed through earlier and was lucky enough to hide in the yard of some good Samaritans who nursed him along. Today, at four years of age (he was born in 2019), he maintains his limp — not a huge one, but a limp nonetheless. In spite of his condition, he is the alpha male of his own family — so he’s a real survivor.

Skin lesions from all sorts of pathogens & injuries exist.

I have not seen any cases of mange in the city, but I’ve seen plenty of skin lesions. Below is a case that looked like the result of a mite/flea infestation which then was licked and worked over by the coyote, causing more hair loss than anything else. The wound itself could initially be seen as fiery red, so it must have been painful. I again sent photos of this five-year-old lactating mother here to the vet. The vet replied — this is after the furious red had died down — that the coyote was healing well, that she (the coyote) did a good job of cleaning up the wound, that it could have been a puncture or foxtail wound, and that coyotes seem better at healing on their own than dogs. I don’t usually see skin lesions that are that big — most appear substantially smaller than this one and there are usually many such lesions on an animal.

Bulbous ear growths

Worms and intestinal parasites obviously exist as shown by my regularly seeing diarrhea and seeing “scooting” behavior, which almost always signifies worms, the same as with dogs.

Coyotes are in fact constantly grooming each other to prevent insect infestations. Here are two youngster siblings removing ticks from each other.
Tag caused an ear infection and deformed ear; radio collar did self-release so she’s stuck with it

Scientists wanting to study these animals — besides harassing and terrifying the animals by capturing them — use gadgets that they staple or buckle onto the animals. I’ve seen tagging that resulted in a permanently flopped-over ear, and radio-collars which were supposed to be automatically self-released but malfunctioned so that after five years, these cumbersome objects are still attached to the animals.

Other human injuries are caused by sporting paintguns which can cause internal injuries and even the loss of an eye. We almost never discover the extent of any injury because we hope for minimal human intervention and, besides, nature is one of the best healers.

An injured eye
A lost eye could have been caused by hunting.

Here’s a coyote without an eye. I don’t know what caused this injury. I can just hope it wasn’t caused by a human. This is one of the Golden Gate Park coyote pups born last year who dispersed to Lake Merced before disappearing completely. The coyote was much, much smaller than his siblings, possibly due to his inability to get enough food. Hardship again. And here’s another coyote who only two days earlier was perfectly fine, but now she’s squinting severely with her right eye — again, I hope it wasn’t caused by humans.

These are wounds from a territorial battle. She was driven away from her home, but eventually got it back.

Wounds from territorial battles are not so uncommon. I’ve seen a 4 year old limping home from such a battle. The worst I’ve seen is a five year old father who had part of his lip torn off. And then there was Scout whose flight from her territorial battler I documented extensively on this blog.

Gophers can fight back by biting hard.

But wounds also occur from just simply everyday life. For example, in hunting for gophers, the gopher often, if it can, fights back. This may be one of the reasons a coyote *toys* with its prey: to keep that gopher away from its eyes. I had a friend with a pet python snake who had lost an eye to prey: the owner saw it happen.

Infant mortality is always high in coyotes. Last summer a pup was found dead at the Presidio about ten days after it died — it was too late to perform a necropsy.

And at West Portal last year, one of the four pups was either born with a birth defect or acquired an injury early on to his spine because — he was lame and much smaller than his siblings The vet told me it’s very likely the result of distemper, and the case in the Presidio may be the same: distemper causes neurological compromises that can result in lameness. I saw a cheetah abandon such a pup in the wild — that did not happen here. This fella was not abandoned or ditched. He was allowed to grow up with his siblings who prodded him on. And, miraculously, he improved! He began walking regularly, albeit with a bit of a wobble which over time subsided. At this stage, I don’t know what the effect will be on him as an adult.

You know that there’s an ear problem when they continue to shake their heads. There’s no vet to take care of the infection or remove the foxtail. They learn to cope.

What I have depicted here are the visible injuries and afflictions that I myself could identify. Those diseases that aren’t so readily visible or identifiable, include rabies of which we’ve had no cases in San Francisco, canine distemper — which we can sometimes identify by the injury it causes to an animal, tularemia, canine hepatitis and mange, which is associated with weakened immune systems caused by rat poison.

Scars are their histories — most of the stories we’ll never know, but what we should know is that survival requires some tough beatings. Here are some scars that have stories behind them — and I know only a very few of them. On the left, the scars have healed, but his scars were as disfiguring as these two to the right which were fresh when I took the photos.

So, a coyote’s life is hard and it is short — but it’s harder elsewhere I think, where they are subject to predation mostly by people, whereas wolves used to be their main predator, until we killed them all off. Fortunately, we here in San Francisco have gotten rid of the sinister culture still maintained in many areas: killing them to manage them. One old-timer told me that in the 1950s, San Francisco paid $4.00 bounties for a set of two ears. With all the killing humans have imposed on coyotes — 200K a year — their numbers have not gone down. As a species they are survivors and resilient. As individuals, just like us, they are trying to survive and thrive in a sometimes hostile world. We need to give them a break by simply keeping a distance and walking away from them if you have a dog: that alone will make life more pleasant for them AND for dog owners!

We don’t shoot them on sight here in SF

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael s Blott
    May 22, 2023 @ 13:53:40

    Nearly all the Moutain lions in California test positive for rat poison


    • yipps:janetkessler
      May 22, 2023 @ 20:02:44

      I believe it. MOST of the animals taken to WildCare — a wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael — have some degree of rat poisoning. It’s actually illegal to buy in the City of San Francisco, but people who want it, get it in whatever way they can. :(

  2. MelindaH
    May 22, 2023 @ 19:13:47

    What a horrible species we are…thanks for keeping us informed.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      May 22, 2023 @ 20:04:06

      Hi Melinda — If you haven’t, you might be interested in reading, “The Sixth Extinction”. It’s what our species does. :(

    • MelindaH
      May 22, 2023 @ 20:11:27

      Thanks! Am I going to have to take antidepressants? I’m deeply involved in the western wolf extinction—we are awful!

    • yipps:janetkessler
      May 22, 2023 @ 20:15:11

      Hi Melinda —

      Bottom line, as a species, we are awful. “Progress” has been only for ourselves, and almost always at the expense of everything else in the world. No, don’t take antidepressants. Get mad and fight hard!!

  3. Gina
    May 22, 2023 @ 20:31:24

    So sad. I wish we could help the injured animals. Isn’t there a bait-vaccine for distemper? Seems like it would be good to control that disease among SF wildlife for multiple reasons.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      May 22, 2023 @ 21:23:49

      Apparently last year there was a distemper epidemic. It’s the first time (in 16 years) that I’ve seen its effect on coyote pups. The policy of the city is to leave wildlife alone — a policy I wholeheartedly, at least generally, agree with. But it seems a simple oral vaccine would be non-intrusive, easily administered, and protect from the worst of the diseases. I’ll look into it. If you find anything, please forward to me, and I’ll do the same. Thank you, Gina!

  4. David Hartley
    May 28, 2023 @ 14:38:19

    This website has been a huge help over the years in bringing to light the amazing and often sad journey of wild coyotes. And how all of us can help make the world a better place for one of the most amazing creatures on the planet. Ever so grateful to you. <3


    • yipps:janetkessler
      May 28, 2023 @ 15:38:59

      Thank you, David! That’s the highest compliment I can image! If I’ve influenced even a handful of people to grasp what you have just said about coyotes, I will have accomplished a lot. Appreciatively!! Janet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: