Figure 1. Feral dog, Canis familiaris
In appearance, most feral dogs (Fig. 1) are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from domestic dogs. Like domestic dogs, feral dogs (sometimes referred to as wild or free-ranging dogs) manifest themselves in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and even breeds. McKnight (1964) noted German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and collies as breeds that often become feral. Most feral dogs today are descendants of domestic dogs gone wild, and they often appear similar to dog breeds that are locally common.
The primary feature that distinguishes feral from domestic dogs is the degree of reliance or dependence on humans, and in some respect, their behavior toward people. Feral dogs survive and reproduce independently of human intervention or assistance. While it is true that some feral dogs use human garbage for food, others acquire their primary subsistence by hunting and scavenging like other wild canids.
Feral and domestic dogs often differ markedly in their behavior toward people. Scott and Causey (1973) based their classification of these two types by observing the behavior of dogs while confined in cage traps. Domestic dogs usually wagged their tails or exhibited a calm disposition when a human approached, whereas most feral dogs showed highly aggressive behavior, growling, barking, and attempting to bite. Some dogs were intermediate in their behavior and couldn’t be classified as either feral or domestic based solely on their reaction to humans. Since many feral dogs have been pursued, shot at, or trapped by people, their aggressive behavior toward humans is not surprising. Gipson (1983) described the numerous lead pellets imbedded under the skin of a feral dog caught in Arkansas as a testament to its relationship with people.
Feral dogs are usually secretive and wary of people. Thus, they are active during dawn, dusk, and at night much like other wild canids. They often travel in packs or groups and may have rendezvous sites like wolves. Travel routes to and from the gathering or den sites may be well defined. Food scraps and other evidence of concentrated activity may be observed at gathering sites.
The appearance of tracks left by feral dogs varies with the size and weight of the animal. Generally, dog tracks are rounder and show more prominent nail marks than those of coyotes, and they are usually larger than those of foxes. Since a pack of feral dogs likely consists of animals in a variety of sizes and shapes, the tracks from a pack of dogs will be correspondingly varied, unlike the tracks of a group of coyotes. The publication by Acorn and Dorrance (1990) contains a comparative illustration of canid tracks.
Feral dogs are highly adaptable, social carnivores. Most are about the size of a coyote or slightly larger. Many breeds of dogs are capable of existing in the wild, but after a few generations of uncontrolled breeding, a generalized mongrel tends to develop. Often it has a German shepherd or husky-like appearance. Feral dogs on the Galapagos Islands resemble the original introduced breeds: hounds, pointers, and Borzoi.
Gipson (1983) suggested that family groups of feral dogs are more highly organized than previously believed. Pup rearing may be shared by several members of a pack. Survival of pups born during autumn and winter has been documented, even in areas with harsh winter weather. Gipson found that only one female in a pack of feral dogs studied in Alaska gave birth during two years of study, even though other adult females were present in the pack. The breeding female gave birth during late September or early October during both years. It is noteworthy that all pups from both litters had similar color markings, suggesting that the pups had the same father. Adult males of different colors were present in the pack.
Nesbitt (1975) commented on the rigid social organization of a pack of feral dogs where nonresident dogs were excluded, including females in estrus. In one instance, Nesbitt used three separate female dogs in estrus as bait (dogs were chained in the back of a corral-type trap) over a 59-day period and captured no feral dogs. He then baited the same trap with carrion, and a pack of feral dogs, including four adult males, entered the trap within 1 week.
Hybridization between feral dogs and other wild canids can occur, but non-synchronous estrus periods and pack behavior (that is, excluding nonresident canids from membership in the pack) may preclude much interbreeding. Dens may be burrows dug in the ground or sheltered spots under abandoned buildings or farm machinery. Feral dogs commonly use former fox or coyote dens.
Feral dogs are the most widespread of the wild canids. They may occur wherever people are present and permit dogs to roam free or where people abandon unwanted dogs. Feral dogs probably occur in all of the 50 states, Canada, and Central and South America. They are also common in Europe, Australia, Africa, and on several remote ocean islands, such as the Galapagos.
Home ranges of feral dogs vary considerably in size and are probably influenced by the availability of food. Dog packs that are primarily dependent on garbage may remain in the immediate vicinity of a dump, while other packs that depend on livestock or wild game may forage over an area of 50 square miles (130 km2) or more.
Feral dogs are often found in forested areas or shrub lands in the vicinity of human habitation. Some people will not tolerate feral dogs in close proximity to human activity; thus they take considerable effort to eliminate feral dogs in such areas. Feral dogs may be found on lands where human access is limited, such as military reservations and large airports. They may also live in remote sites where they feed on wildlife and native fruits. The only areas that do not appear to be suitable for feral dogs are places where food and escape cover are not available, or where large native carnivores, particularly wolves, are common and prey on dogs
Like coyotes, feral dogs have catholic diets and are best described as opportunistic feeders. They can be efficient predators, preying on small and large animals, including domestic livestock. Many rely on carrion, particularly road-killed animals, crippled waterfowl, green vegetation, berries and other fruits, and refuse at garbage dumps.
Jeffrey S. Green. Assistant Regional Director. USDA-APHIS-Animal Damage Control. Lakewood, Colorado 80228
Philip S. Gipson. Unit Leader. Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Kansas State University Manhattan, Kansas 66506-3501