Wolves, Coyotes, and Dogs

Introduction

Gray wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes are in the family Canidae and are found throughout the United States. It is common for people to misidentify gray wolves, dogs, and coyotes as one another. However, they have key physical and behavioral differences. This page offers tools to assist with identification as well as provide general information about these species.

Species Summary

Coyotes

Species: Canis latrans

Subspecies: 19

Weight: 20 – 50 lbs

Length: 2.5 – 3.5 feet (nose to tail)

Height: 23 – 26 inches (at the shoulder)

Diet: Omnivore

Lifespan: 6 – 14 years in the wild; up to 20 in captivity

Habitat: Plains, forests, mountains, deserts, and urban areas

Current Distribution: Throughout North and South America

Status: Least Concern

Gray Wolves

Species: Canis lupus

Subspecies: 4 to over 30

Weight: 70 – 120 lbs 

Length: 4 – 6.5 feet (nose to tail)

Height: 26 – 38 inches (at the shoulder)

Diet: Carnivore

Lifespan: 6 – 8 years in the wild; 14 – 16 in captivity

Habitat: Arctic tundra, coastal areas, prairies, forests, plains, and deserts

Current distribution: Sporadic distribution throughout the northern hemisphere

Status: Least Concern

Domestic Dogs 

Species: Canis lupus familiaris

Breeds: Over 350

Weight: 3 – 180 lbs

Length: 0.5 – 6.5 feet (nose to tail)

Height: 6 – 36 inches (at the shoulder)

Diet: Omnivore

Lifespan: 6 – 20 years depending on the breed

Habitat: All environment types except the Antarctic

Current distribution:  Found worldwide anywhere humans reside

Status: Not Threatened

Geographic Distribution in North America

Coyotes

Coyotes are widespread and abundant. They are found throughout North America. Coyotes are also often found in urban areas throughout North America. In urban areas, coyotes tend to reside in wooded areas to avoid humans.  

Gray Wolves

Originally, gray wolves were found all throughout North America. However, due to habitat loss and human-wolf conflict, their habitat has been significantly reduced. Currently, in North America, the gray wolf is only found in Canada, Alaska, and isolated areas in the continental United States.

Domestic Dogs

Domestic dogs are widespread and abundant. They are found throughout North America in areas where humans live. Feral domestic dogs are also found in North America and often inhabit areas where humans are present.

Physical Description (Morphology)

Height

(at the shoulder)

Coyote

23-26 inches

Gray Wolf

26-38 inches

Alaskan Malamute

22-26 inches

German Shepherd

22-26 inches

Length

(nose to tail)

2.5-3.6 feet

4.0-6.5 feet

4.0-6.5 feet

4.0-6.5 feet

Weight

20-50 pounds

70-120 pounds

70-95 pounds

50-90 pounds

Head

Narrow and pointed with a narrow muzzle

Large and wedge-shaped with a broad muzzle

Broad and wedge-shaped with a bulky muzzle

Large and wedge-shaped

Facial Markings

Blended

Blended

Distinctive mask with widow’s peak

Darker coloration around ears and muzzle without distinctive mask

Nose

Black

Black

Black or brown

Black

Eyes

Yellow

Yellow, Amber, Brown, or Green

Yellow to Brown

Dark Brown

Ears

Tall and pointed, furred inside

Short and rounded, heavily furred inside

Triangular and slightly rounded, furred inside

Long and slightly pointed, not furred inside

Fur

Long and dense

Long and dense

Long and dense

Medium length and less dense

Coloration

Grayish brown to yellowish gray on the back; face, and legs are reddish-brown

White, reddish, brownish, grayish, and black; with no sharp changes in coloration

White underbody, with the back being gray, black, or reddish

Solid black or black and tan; Sometimes tan, goldish, or white

Tail

Droops behind the body

Trails behind the body

Curls onto back

Set low on the body

Paws

2.4 -3.1 inches long, front paws bigger than back paws

4 – 5.5 inches long, front paws bigger than back paws, angled outward, well furred

2 – 3.5 inches long, angled forward, well furred

2 – 3.5 inches long, angled forward, not well furred

Social Structure

Coyotes

Coyotes are generally less social than wolves and are equally comfortable living solo or as part of a group. If coyotes are living together, they typically develop loosely-formed packs that are usually made up of two to four adults and their pups, with a breeding pair being the most common type of social pairing. Similar to wolves, packs are often closely related family units made up of parents and their offspring. While packs will hunt and travel together, pack members are also likely do these activities separately. Many times when coyotes are spotted, the coyote is alone, which has caused the misconception that coyotes are only solitary animals.

Gray Wolves

Gray wolves are highly cooperative, social animals. They form groups called packs that average six to nine individuals. The pack is generally composed of a breeding pair and their offspring. Contrary to popular culture, wild wolf packs do not have a social structure governed by a conflict-based dominance hierarchy. Instead, wolf packs are generally family groups and social interactions are structured along the lines of parent/offspring relationships, with the breeding pair (i.e. the parents) being the ones to take on leadership roles. Often, the dominant female makes more decisions for the pack as a whole, while the dominant male protects the pack. The pack will hunt, eat, defend territories, raise young, and travel together.

Domestic Dogs

Domestic dogs are social animals and, like coyotes, are comfortable of living solo or as part of a group. Unlike wolves or coyotes, dogs are generally better at accepting different species (such as humans) into their social groups. When living in packs, dogs have a conflict-avoidance based social structure which lends itself to a more ridged social hierarchy than seen in wolves. Generally, there is one leader, and the other dogs are ranked linearly below that individual. Pet dogs (unless they have a high prey drive), do not hunt together since they are typically fed by their owners and have no need to hunt or travel. Feral dog packs are primarily scavengers and tend to look for food individually. They also usually do not share their food with others in the pack.

Reproduction and Parental Care

Coyotes

Breeding: Monoestrous (once per year)

Breeding Season: January – March

Gestation Length: 60 – 63 days

Average Litter Size: 5 – 6 pups

Pup Mortality Rate: 50% – 70%

Adult Size: 9 – 12 Months

Sexual Maturity: 12 months

 

Both male and female coyotes are only fertile during breeding season, which is from January to March. Though courtship may occur over a period of weeks, female coyotes are only receptive for two to five days during this time. Litter sizes have a huge range from one to nineteen pups depending on environmental factors such as population density and food abundance. Therefore, the smaller the coyote population or the more hospitable the ecosystem is that year, the more pups will be born per litter. Once born, parental care is provided by both the male and female.

Gray Wolves

Breeding: Monoestrous (once per year)

Breeding Season: January – April

Gestation Length: 60 – 65 days

Average Litter Size: 4 – 6 pups

Pup Mortality Rate: 40% – 60%

Adult Size: 12 Months

Sexual Maturity: 22 months

 

Both male and female gray wolves are only fertile during breeding season, which happens once per year from January to April, depending on the latitude. During this time, usually just the dominant pair mates, though during times when resources are abundant, there have been some reports of more than one female in a pack giving birth. The pups are born in dens dug by the pack, and there can be as few as one to as many as eleven pups in a litter. Taking care of the pups is a pack effort in which all members contribute to raising the pups.

Domestic Dogs

Breeding: Diestrous (twice per year)

Breeding Season: Year Round

Gestation Length: 52 – 68 days

Average Litter Size: 5 – 6 pups

Pup Mortality Rate: 17% – 30%

Adult Size: 12 – 18 Months

Sexual Maturity: 6 – 10 months

 

Domestic dogs are capable of breeding at any time of the year, with females typically coming into heat approximately every six months after reaching sexual maturity. Males are always fertile after sexual maturity and are capable of siring offspring year-round. Feral domestic dogs have similar mating behaviors to gray wolves. Generally, only the dominant pair will mate, and raising the pups is a pack effort. In pet domestic dogs, breeding is often controlled by the owners, and care of the pups is usually limited to the female dog and humans.

Food Habits

Coyotes

Coyotes are omnivores and opportunistic scavengers. Often, their primary food sources will vary based on seasonal availability and can include fruits, nuts, insects, and meat. Coyotes will hunt either alone or in pairs, and because of their smaller size, their primary prey tends to be rodents and other small mammals. However, Coyotes have been known to hunt larger ungulates such as deer as well as kill livestock. It is estimated that over two-thirds of lambs lost to depredation are attributed to coyotes (https://theconversation.com).

Gray Wolves

Gray wolves are primarily carnivorous, meaning they must eat meat but can also eat some vegetation. Wolves most often hunt in packs; therefore, they can take down larger animals such as moose and elk. However, wolves will go after smaller prey such as rodents and have even been observed hunting for fish in rivers and along coastlines. While wolves prefer to hunt ungulates, they have been known to kill livestock. However, the number of livestock losses due to wolf depredation is drastically overestimated. In fact, wolves are only responsible for 0.02% of the total annual unwanted losses in the cattle industry.

Domestic Dogs

Dogs are omnivores and are primarily scavengers with a wide range of food habits. Feral domestic dogs will hunt both small and large animals, including livestock, and will often scavenge off of road kill or from garbage dump sites. Pet domestic dog diets vary drastically upon multiple factors such as the particular dog breed as well as the preferences of the owner. However, it is not recommended that dogs only consume raw meat, as they should get a source of calcium and iron from elsewhere.

Conservation Status

Coyotes

Coyotes are not endangered and are considered a nuisance species in some places. In some areas of the United States, there are efforts to decrease coyote populations through hunting and coyote killing competitions.

Gray Wolves

In October 2020, Gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species Act and are no longer considered endangered despite the fact that wolves populations have recovered less than 10% of their historic range. However, in some areas of the United States, there are efforts to help recover and reintroduce wolf populations.

Domestic Dog

Domestic dogs are not threatened. In fact, feral domestic dogs have caused millions of dollars of damage in the United States, which has prompted efforts to decrease the population of feral dogs.

Sources

Bender, Skei. “Wolf or Coyote?” Courtesy of Wolf Haven International, 2020, pp. 42–43. 

 

Bradford, Alina. “Coyote Facts.” LiveScience, Purch, 26 Sept. 2017, www.livescience.com/27976-coyotes.html 

 

Dale, Rachel, et al. “The Influence of Social Relationship on Food Tolerance in Wolves and Dogs.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5493712/.

 

Dewey, Tanya, and Julia Smith. “Canis Lupus (Gray Wolf).” Animal Diversity Web, 2002, animaldiversity.org/accounts/Canis_lupus/.

 

“Distinguishing between Coyotes, Wolves and Dogs.” CDFW Prod, wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Gray-Wolf/Identification.

 

“General Information About Coyotes.” General Information About Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research, urbancoyoteresearch.com/coyote-info/general-information-about-coyotes.

 

Miles, Kim, and Jody Haynes. “Wolf, Wolfdog, or Dog? Phenotyping Canines!” Florida Lupine, 2016, www.floridalupine.org/.

 

“Read ‘Evaluating the Taxonomic Status of the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf’ at NAP.edu.” National Academies Press: OpenBook, www.nap.edu/read/25351/chapter/5.

 

Tokar, Erik. “Canis Latrans (Coyote).” Animal Diversity Web, 2001, animaldiversity.org/accounts/Canis_latrans/. 

 

Wildlife-Damage-Management. “Feral Dogs.” Wildlife Damage Management, 30 Aug. 2019, wildlife-damage-management.extension.org/feral-dogs/. 

 

Elbroch, M. & Rinehart, K. (2011). Behavior of North American Mammals. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.