What to Do if You Encounter a Wild Animal

BY Elizabeth Kowalski, CVT, FFCP

Raccoon sitting in tree

As urban and suburban sprawl brings us closer to wildlife, close encounters are becoming more common. The likelihood of a threatening confrontation depends greatly on where you live, with greater potential for harm in areas populated by bears, big cats, venomous snakes, or wolves, but any wild animal can potentially carry or transmit a harmful disease. However, this is a two-way street, with wildlife also at risk for harm from careless or malicious human actions.

During March, we celebrate World Wildlife Day, which highlights the importance of animals in our ecosystems and encourages conservation efforts. Read on for tips and advice on how to act should you encounter a wild animal.

Be prepared for unexpected encounters

Encounters with wildlife can happen at any time no matter where you live. Although you’re more likely to come across a wild animal while visiting a forest preserve, national park, or hiking trail, many animals have ventured into our cities and neighborhoods in search of food. Being prepared can help you prevent or deal with a serious incident. Follow these basic tips:

  • Keep pets leashed and under your immediate control to prevent unwanted animal interactions.
  • If you live in an area with large wild animals, carry bear spray or another effective defense.
  • Charge your phone and keep it with you in case you need to call for help.
  • Carry a pet first aid kit and, for large dogs, an emergency carry sling in case a wild animal injures your pet.

Maintain a respectful distance

If you see a wild animal while you are out and about, resist the urge to look at them up close. Instead, stay a safe and respectful distance and remain calm and quiet. Don’t allow dogs to bark at or otherwise harass wild animals, unless they need to defend you or themselves from an attack. If your pet becomes excited when they see other animals, redirect their attention with treats and go in the opposite direction. Never approach a baby animal as a mother is likely nearby.

Protect pets from disease

Wild animals can carry diseases, such as leptospirosis or rabies, that are transmissible to pets. Dense wildlife populations also increase the likelihood that your pet will contract fleas, ticks, heartworms, and intestinal parasites. Protect your pet with appropriate vaccinations and use reliable flea, tick, and heartworm preventives as directed by your veterinarian.

Avoid feeding wildlife

Avoid feeding wildlife intentionally or by leaving trash or pet food in unsecured containers outdoors, which attracts animals to your home, teaches them where they can find food, and creates a nuisance or potential danger. Feeding animals can also mean that they are less able to hunt or forage for themselves if the food source is removed.

Report injured wild animals

If you come across an injured wild animal or an apparently abandoned baby, don’t attempt to remedy the situation yourself. Injured animals approached by humans may panic and harm themselves further or injure the person trying to help them. You also put yourself at risk for contracting potentially fatal diseases from an animal bite or scratch.

Many animal mothers leave their babies to forage for food and eventually return. When you find an animal that you believe needs help, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to report the issue, and they will advise you on the best course of action. Additionally, attempting to rehabilitate a wild animal without the proper license may get you into legal trouble.

Learn about your local wildlife

Learning about your local wildlife and spreading that knowledge fosters respect for the animals and helps to prevent mishaps with humans. When you learn about the natural history, ecological niche, habits, and lifecycle of animals in your community, you can better anticipate and understand their behavior and advocate for their conservation.

Visiting a local nature center or taking an informative park district class are great places to start. If you live in an area with large or venomous animals and like to spend time in the great outdoors, consider classes that teach you what to do in specific “survival” situations, such as when you hear a rattlesnake or when a bear approaches.

When wildlife, pets, and people mix, the outcome can be catastrophic. Keeping pets under your immediate control and maintaining a respectful relationship with your local wildlife can help create harmony, and we can all peacefully coexist. For questions about how wildlife can affect your pet’s health, contact your local AAHA-accredited veterinary hospital.